Category Archives: Volatile gases

Railway Age editor blasts industry, regulators for failure to understand root cause of derailments: volatile gases

Repost from Railway Age
[Editor: I will take issue with the author, who discounts tank car design, track maintenance and other factors for continuing catastrophic oil train derailments.  But I applaud his highlighting of the importance of reducing volatile gases in crude oil at the source.  See an important related discussion on the difference between conditioning and stabilizing the oil.  – RS]

The positive legacy of Lac-Mégantic: Zero

By David Thomas, Contributing Editor, Friday, July 08, 2016

Three years ago, in the early hours of July 13, a runaway oil train exploded in the then-idyllic lakeside town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.

The investigation and ensuing cascade of regulatory measures severely disrupted the nascent crude-by-rail industry, caused federal authorities in Canada and the U.S. to condemn most of the continental tank car fleet, and turned the chattering classes against the railroads, amid a ruthless tarring by the petroleum lobby, for not “keeping the damn trains on the track.”

Lac megantic burningAfter all that, crude oil trains continue to derail and blow up; and the official blaming continues to target the railroads. The Federal Railroad Administration’s preliminary report on the July 3 explosion of four cars in Mosier, Ore., blames Union Pacific, citing sheared lag bolts and loose tieplates as the cause of the derailment.

As a trivial, background factoid, the FRA noted that the Mosier crude originated at Dakota Plains’ New Town terminal in North Dakota. The FRA did not mention that the doomed Lac-Mégantic train was loaded at that very same terminal, with crude oil fracked from the same Bakken oil formation.

Despite all of the regulatory agonizing, oil train explosions remain a clear and present danger, and not because of tieplates or tank cars.

The FRA reported that the four breached and burned cars were modern CPC-1232s, upgraded with full-height head shields and insulated metal jackets. Such upgraded cars are approved for use by the FRA, which remarked in its report: “The tank cars involved in the derailment performed as expected in the incident based on tank car performance metrics.”

In other words, the new tank cars are expected to breach in a 25 mph derailment. In more other words, the entire mandated fleet renewal was a monster red herring that distracted attention from fixing the root cause of exploding oil trains: contaminated crude oil containing dangerous and entirely unnecessary concentrations of explosive gases.

The solution, by now, is achingly obvious. Volatile crude should be heat-treated to remove explosive and corrosive gases (as is done routinely in Texas). Alberta bitumen should neither be diluted with naptha to ease its flow into and out of tank cars, nor juiced with hydrogen to boost its otherwise dismal energy value.

None of those measures has been implemented by Canada or the U.S. Instead, the obvious factor of crude oil volatility in oil train explosions has been shunted off to the U.S. Department of Energy for years of study that will eventually prove the validity of high school chemistry. The unnecessary presence of propane, butane, naptha and hydrogen converts barely flammable crude oil into a volatile explosive.

Losers:

• The honor of rail and hazmat regulators and elected politicians in Canada and the U.S., for their utter failure to address the known root cause of oil train explosions.

• The railroads, for allowing themselves to be painted as perpetrators of oil train explosions, instead of victims, forced by law, to haul demonstrably unsafe cargo in inadequate conveyances.

• Three lowly railroad operating employees facing criminal charges for the consequences of following company rules against setting automatic train brakes on a train, left unattended, with the engine running on a downhill grade.

• The sanctity of human life, for losing out to profit margin in the cost-benefit analysis of shipping incidentally (or in the case of bitumen, intentionally) contaminated crude.

Winners:

• The American Petroleum Institute, for convincing its well-paid legion of political hacks to blame tank cars and track bolts, instead of weaponized crude oil.

• Current and former Transport Canada executives, who escaped public identification and accountability for the still-unexplained exemption of a decrepit railroad from crewing requirements that apply to other railroads.

• Canada’s Transportation Safety Board, for continuing to survive as an investigative body, while defending its continuing failure to recommend that automatic train brakes be set when parking an unattended hazmat consist on a downhill grade—even when its Lac-Mégantic investigation concluded that setting such brakes would, very probably, have prevented the catastrophe.

Lac-Mégantic’s 47 victims died in the cause of maximized oil industry profit. Their deaths are unavenged. Those responsible go unpunished. The probability of future, entirely avoidable oil train calamities approaches the inevitable.

And that, three years later, is the legacy of Lac-Mégantic.

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    STEVE YOUNG: What Benicia can learn from the Oregon train derailment

    Repost from the Benicia Herald

    What Benicia can learn from the Oregon train derailment

    By Steve Young, June 7, 2016
    Planning Commissioner Steve Young is running for City Council. Among the biggest issues in his campaign are opposing Valero’s Crude-By-Rail Project, diversifying the city’s economic base, modernizing the water and sewer system, improving the roads and maintaining the parks. (Courtesy photo)
    Planning Commissioner Steve Young is running for Benicia City Council. Among the biggest issues in his campaign are opposing Valero’s Crude-By-Rail Project, diversifying the city’s economic base, modernizing the water and sewer system, improving the roads and maintaining the parks. (Courtesy photo)

    On Friday, June 3, a Union Pacific train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in the town of Mosier, Ore. Fourteen rail cars came off the tracks, and four exploded over a 5 hour period.

    There are several things that the City Council needs to keep in mind whenever they re-open discussion of the appeal of the Planning Commission’s unanimous decision to reject the Valero Crude-by-Rail project. Many of the assurances given to the public about the safety of transporting crude by rail have been called into question by this derailment.

      1. The train cars that derailed and exploded are the upgraded CPC-1232 version promised to be used by Valero for this project.
      2. The train derailed at a relatively slow speed as it passed through the small town of Mosier. Union Pacific trains carrying Bakken to Valero will travel at speeds up to 50 mph in most of Solano County.
      3. The portion of track on which the train derailed had been inspected by Union Pacific three days before the derailment.
      4. A Union Pacific spokesman, while apologizing for the derailment and fire, would not answer a reporter’s question as to whether the Bakken oil had been stabilized with the removal of volatile gases prior to shipment.
        At the Planning Commission hearing, I tried repeatedly without success to get an answer from both UP and Valero as to whether they intended to de-gassify the Bakken oil prior to transport.
      5. A major interstate, Interstate 84, was closed for 10 hours in both directions while first responders used river water to try and cool the tank cars to a point where foam could be used to try and put out the fire. It took more than 12 hours to stabilize the scene.
      6. An oil sheen is in the river, despite the deployment of containment booms.

    And finally, Oregon Public Broadcasting on June 4 had an exchange with the Fire Chief of Mosier, about how this experience changed his opinion about the safety of transporting crude by rail:

    “Jim Appleton, the fire chief in Mosier, Ore., said in the past, he’s tried to reassure his town that the Union Pacific Railroad has a great safety record and that rail accidents are rare.

    “He’s changed his mind.

    “After a long night working with hazardous material teams and firefighters from across the Northwest to extinguish a fire that started when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in his town, Appleton no longer believes shipping oil by rail is safe.

    “’I hope that this becomes the death knell for this mode of shipping this cargo. I think it’s insane,’ he said. ’I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now, but with this incident, and with all due respect to the wonderful people that I’ve met at Union Pacific, shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.’”

    When the City Council took up the appeal of the Planning Commission decision in April, Mayor Patterson and Councilmember Campbell stated their opposition to the project, while the other three councilmembers (Hughes, Schwartzman and Strawbridge) approved Valero’s request to delay a decision on this project until at least Sept. 20. There is still time for the citizens of Benicia to tell their elected officials how they feel about this project. I urge them to do so.

    Steve Young, a member of the Benicia Planning Commission, is running for the Benicia City Council in November.

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      New York AG calls on PHMSA to close crude-by-rail safety loophole

      Repost from Progressive Railroading
      [Editor:  See also New York Wants Oil Companies to Treat Oil Shipped on Trains – Wall Street Journal, and NYS attorney general pushes federal limit on crude oil train explosion risk – Albany Times Union.  – RS]

      New York AG calls on PHMSA to close crude-by-rail safety loophole

      December 4, 2015

      New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has called on the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to limit the vapor pressure of crude oil shipped by rail.

      In a petition for rulemaking, Schneiderman asked the agency to require all crude transported by rail in the United States to achieve a vapor pressure of less than 9 pounds per square inch (psi). Vapor pressure is a key driver of the oil’s explosiveness and flammability, according to a press release issued by Schneiderman’s office.

      In his petition, the attorney general argues that reducing crude oil vapor pressures is practical and necessary for minimizing the risk and severity of accidents involving tank cars.

      Crude oils with the highest vapor pressures — including crude produced from the Bakken Shale formations in North Dakota — have the highest concentrations of propane, butane, ethane and other highly volatile gases, Schneiderman noted. 

      While the vapor pressure of crude involved in train accidents is often undisclosed, the vapor pressure in such accidents in which the levels were disclosed have exceeded 9 psi, including the crude train accident in Lac Megantic, Quebec, that caused 47 fatalities.

      “Recent catastrophic rail accidents send a clear warning that we need to do whatever we can to reduce the dangers that crude oil shipments pose to communities across New York State,” Schneiderman said in a prepared statement. “In New York, trains carrying millions of gallons of crude oil routinely travel through our cities and towns without any limit on its explosiveness or flammability — which makes crude oil more likely to catch fire and explode in train accidents. … The federal government needs to close this extremely dangerous loophole, and ensure that residents of the communities in harm’s way of oil trains receive the greatest possible protection.”

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        Kalamazoo River 5 years later – still cleaning it up

        Repost from OnEarth Magazine, Natural Resources Defense Council
        [Editor:  Significant quote: “The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean.  Let’s not forget how much it cost to (not completely) clean the Kalamazoo. The current price tag is $1.21 billion (and rising), making it the most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history.”  – RS]

        Remember the Kalamazoo

        Five years ago, a pipeline spilled a million gallons of tar sands crude into a Michigan river—and we’re still cleaning it up.
        By Brian Palmer, July 22, 2015
        Skimmers, like these used to clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill, were useless in Kalamazoo, where the tar sands crude sank to the bottom. Photo: NOAA

        Five years ago, in the middle of the night, an oil pipeline operated by Enbridge ruptured outside of Marshall, Michigan. It took more than 17 hours before the Canadian company finally cut off the flow, but by then, more than a million gallons of tar sands crude had oozed into Talmadge Creek. The oil quickly flowed into the Kalamazoo River, forcing dozens of families to evacuate their homes. Oil spills of that magnitude are always disastrous, but the Kalamazoo event was historically damaging.

        The first challenge was the composition of the oil. Fresh tar sands crude looks more like dirt than conventional crude—it’s far too thick to travel through a pipeline.

        Try pumping this through a pipeline. Photo: Suncor

        To get this crumbly mess to flow, producers thin it out with the liquid constituents of natural gas. Diluted bitumen, or dilbit, as it’s called in the tar sands industry, is approximately three parts tar sands crude, one part natural gas liquids.

        When dilbit gushed into Talmadge Creek in 2010, the mixture broke apart. The volatile natural gas liquids vaporized and wafted into the surrounding neighborhoods. The airborne chemicals were so difficult to find and eliminate that Enbridge decided it would be better to simply buy some of the homes that were evacuated, preventing the residents from ever returning.

        The tar sands oil, which stayed in the water, presented an even bigger chemistry problem. Most forms of oil, including conventional crude, are less dense than water. That’s why oil makes such pretty colors when dropped into a rain puddle—it floats and plays tricks with the sunlight. Traditional oil spill cleanup technology relies heavily on this density relationship. Skimmers and vacuums remove it from the surface. Floating booms prevent surface-level oil from moving into environmentally sensitive areas.

        Tar sands crude behaves differently. “Tar sands bitumen is a low-grade, heavy substance,” says Anthony Swift, director of NRDC’s Canada Project (disclosure). “Unlike conventional crude, when bitumen is released into a water body, it sinks.” (See “Sink or Skim,” onEarth’s infographic on why tar sands oil is more difficult to clean up than conventional crude.)

        Skimmers, like these used to clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill, were useless in Kalamazoo, where the tar sands crude sank to the bottom. Photo: NOAA

        Put simply, the spilled dilbit traveled in every direction—into the air, with the current, to the bottom of the river—at the same time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s indisputably naïve response reveals how little anyone knew about tar sands crude. The EPA demanded that Enbridge remove the oil from wetlands surrounding the pipe by August 27, a little more than one month after the spill began. The agency wanted the stuff out of the creek, river, and shorelines by the September 27. Those deadlines would have been practical for a typical spill—but not for a tar sands oil spill. A half-decade later, some of the oil still remains—though, much of that has to do with Enbridge botching the cleanup effort (see onEarth’s three-part series, “The Whistleblower”).

        Enbridge’s bungling began even before the spill. First, the company knew the pipeline was vulnerable by 2005, if not earlier. When the rupture finally came in July 2010, operators dismissed the alarms as a malfunction of the system for 17 hours before finally accepting that the pipeline had failed. Making things worse, six hours after Calhoun County residents were complaining to 911 about the smell of oil, Enbridge employees were still trying to fix the problem by pumping additional oil into the pipeline. In its review of the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted Enbridge’s “culture of deviance” for what happened, pointing out that the response team in the first hours consisted of four local pipeline maintenance employees who were inadequately trained and made a series of bad decisions.

        Not only did Enbridge fail to make the EPA’s initial cleanup deadline, it also blew through a series of fallback deadlines across more than four years. Not until late 2014 did the agency finally sign off on the remediation effort, handing the remaining responsibilities to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

        As the cleanup winds down, though, there is little cause for celebration. “The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean,” says Swift. “The EPA reached a point where additional cleanup might do more harm than good. Much of the river is still contaminated.”

        Some local residents accuse the company of overstating its progress. “In the process of beautifying everything and giving money to everybody and making everybody feel good about it, they’re not really telling people about the dangers still there in that water,” says Linda L. Cypret-Kilbourne of Michigan’s Potawatomi tribe.

        It’s not clear when the river will go back to pre-spill quality. After conventional oil spills, crews eventually back off and allow microbes to break down the last bits of crude. That approach isn’t a good option in Kalamazoo. First, the area doesn’t have a large natural population of oil-eating microbes like the Gulf of Mexico has. In addition, tar sands crude contains very high levels of heavy metals, which don’t break down easily.

        Let’s not forget how much it cost to (not completely) clean the Kalamazoo. The current price tag is $1.21 billion (and rising), making it the most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history.

        The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean. The EPA reached a point where additional cleanup might do more harm than good. Much of the river is still contaminated.

        It’s tempting to dismiss the slow, botched, expensive, and still-unfinished cleanup as growing pains. Tar sands imports have risen significantly since 2010, as has public awareness of the difference between the Canadian crude and the conventional product. In the five years since the incident, we should have improved tar sands oil spill response. But we didn’t.

        If another Enbridge spill were to happen tomorrow, the company might respond more quickly, but huge volumes of heavy tar sands crude would still pour out of the pipeline. David Holtz of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club told reporters that a rupture in Enbridge Line 5, another pipeline that runs through Michigan, would be disastrous.

        “If they hit the shutoff valve immediately after a rupture, there would still be more than 650,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Great Lakes,” he said.

        Cleaning it up would be as challenging today as it was five years ago. There have been no technological breakthroughs since 2010. The tar sands industry should accept a large portion of the blame for this stasis.

        “The efforts to improve spill response have been caught up in a public relations war,” says Swift. “The tar sands industry wants you to believe that oil is oil, and that its product involves no heightened concerns. As a result, spill responders are working with largely the same tools today as in 2010.”

        Tar sands pipelines—like the one operated by Enbridge, or TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline—run for thousands of miles, crisscrossing the United States and Canada in elaborate networks. They entail certain risks, and those risks are not going away. We have to decide how to respond. If we accept them, we must work to minimize the consequences by developing the appropriate safety measures and technology. Or we can reject them by eliminating tar sands from our energy infrastructure. The one thing we must not do is to pretend they don’t exist. The Kalamazoo spill is a reminder. It won’t be the last.

         

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