KIMA News Yakima, by LISA BAUMANN | Associated Press, Wednesday, December 23, 2020
BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) — Federal and local authorities were investigating a fiery oil car train derailment north of Seattle near where two people were arrested last month and accused of attempting a terrorist attack on train tracks to disrupt plans for a natural gas pipeline.
Seven train cars carrying crude oil derailed and five caught fire Tuesday, sending a large plume of black smoke into the sky close to the Canadian border. There were no injuries in the derailment about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Seattle
Officials were asked about recent attempts to sabotage oil trains, but they said the investigation was just beginning.
“We’ve not been able to get close enough to the site to make an evaluation,” Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said late Tuesday.
Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board along with the FBI and other federal, state and local agencies were on the scene.
During a news conference Wednesday, officials spoke about their disaster planning they had done to prepare for incidents similar to what occurred with the train derailment. They also spoke about how the impact of the derailment to the surrounding environment could have been worse.
“As far as crude oil derailments and fires, this could not have occurred in a better location with regard to minimizing environmental impact,” said David Byers, who manages disaster response for the Washington Department of Ecology.
Last month federal authorities in Seattle charged two people with a terrorist attack on train tracks, saying they placed “shunts” on Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks. “Shunts” consist of a wire strung across the tracks, mimicking the electrical signal of a train. The devices can cause trains to automatically brake and can disable railroad crossing guards.
Authorities said the pair were opposed to the construction of a natural gas pipeline across British Columbia when they interfered with the operation of a railroad in Washington state.
The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has said there have been dozens of such cases involving BNSF tracks since January, with a message claiming responsibility posted on an anarchist website early this year.
In one, shunts were placed in three locations in northwest Washington on Oct. 11, prompting emergency brakes to engage on a train that was hauling hazardous materials and flammable gas. The braking caused a bar connecting the train’s cars to fail; the cars became separated and could have derailed, authorities said.
Home to five oil refineries, Washington state sees millions of gallons of crude oil move by rail through the state each week, coming from North Dakota and Alberta.
The seven cars derailed at about 11:46 a.m. Tuesday. Two people were on board the 108-car train headed from North Dakota to the Ferndale Refinery, owned by Phillips 66.
Critics of oil transport by rail car said Tuesday’s incident was another example of the dangerousness of the practice. They cited the 2013 fiery derailment of a train carrying crude in Lac Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people.
Washington state passed a law that imposed safety restrictions on oil shipments by rail, but it was blocked earlier this year by the federal government.
The U.S. Department of Transportation in May determined federal law preempts the Washington law adopted last year, which mandated crude from the oil fields of the Northern Plains have more of its volatile gases removed prior to being loaded onto rail cars.
Matt Krogh, director of U.S. Oil & Gas Campaigns for the environmental group Stand.earth, said it is difficult for state and local officials to place restrictions on shipments of oil by train.
“Our hands are tied in many ways because of federal pre-emption,” Krogh said.
BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) — Seven train cars carrying crude oil derailed Tuesday and five caught fire, sending a large black plume of smoke into the sky north of Seattle close to the Canadian border, authorities said.
The derailment in the downtown Custer area closed nearby streets and spurred evacuation orders during a large fire response, Whatcom County officials said on Twitter. Interstate 5 was temporarily closed in the area in both directions.
Later Tuesday, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office tweeted that the fires were under control and the evacuation order had been lifted but roadblocks would remain in place. Fires at the site remained active, the Sheriff’s Office added, and residents were asked to stay inside once they returned home.
“Everyone’s in danger at a scene like this, but fortunately there were no injuries,” Sheriff Bill Elfo said at a news conference.
Jenny Reich, who owns Whimsy Art Glass, was preparing to open her shop and told The Seattle Times that while she is accustomed to train noises, “all of a sudden it was a really big noise, and everything was shaking.”
Black smoke obscured her view, emergency personnel arrived, and Reich said she was advised to evacuate her business. She grabbed her wallet, keys and dog and left.
Home to five oil refineries, Washington state sees millions of gallons of crude oil move by rail through the state each week, coming from North Dakota and Alberta, Canada, according to the state Department of Ecology.
The seven cars derailed at about 11:46 a.m. Tuesday, BNSF Railway spokesperson Courtney Wallace said at the news conference. She said two people were on board the 108-car train headed from North Dakota to the Ferndale Refinery, owned by Phillips 66.
“BNSF is working with local authorities to assess and mitigate the situation,” the railway said on Twitter. “The cause of the incident is under investigation.”
The state Department of Ecology said a command center had been set up at the scene with the railway and federal Environmental Protection Agency officials.
Matt Krogh, director of U.S. Oil & Gas Campaigns for the environmental group Stand.earth, is based in Bellingham near the derailment and told The Associated Press he could see the smoke. He said the incident was another example of how transporting crude oil by train – especially in large numbers of tankers — is “very, very dangerous.”
He cited the 2013 fiery derailment of a train carrying crude in Lac Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people, and a 2016 derailment in Mosier, Oregon, along the Columbia River that caused people to evacuate.
Krogh said crude oil is volatile and there are often track maintenance concerns. Among other things, Krogh and his group would like to see a reduction in the number of tank cars allowed per shipment.
“I think we got lucky today,” he said, referring to the derailment in Custer.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said in a statement Tuesday he was concerned about the derailment. Larsen is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“I worked closely with the Obama administration to create strong rules to make the transport of oil by rail safer,” Larsen said. “Clearly there may be more work to do.”
Custer, a small town of several hundred people, is about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Seattle.
A train derailed and caught fire in the Custer area Tuesday morning and residents and visitors within a half-mile were being evacuated, according to Whatcom County Public Works, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and Washington State Patrol.
The northbound train carrying crude oil derailed around 11:40 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 22, in the Custer area, according to Courtney Wallace, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokesperson, and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. It is a BNSF train and track, Wallace said.
The train derailed near the 7500 block of Portal Way, according to the sheriff’s office on Twitter. The sheriff’s office evacuated people within a half-mile of the derailment. Shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday, the sheriff’s office said on Twitter that the evacuation order was lifted for local residents of Custer. Once residents return home, they are asked to shelter in place and stay inside, the sheriff’s office said. Residents must show proof of residency in order to return home, the sheriff’s office said.
Roadblocks in the area will remain in place.
Seven railway cars derailed from the train and a fire started in two of the seven derailed cars, the sheriff’s office said. The fire was under control as of 3 p.m., but a few were still active as of 5 p.m., the sheriff’s office said.
There have been no reported injuries at this time, Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management Deputy Director John Gargett told The Bellingham Herald about 2 p.m. Tuesday.
Gargett said it’s unclear at this time whether there was damage to nearby structures or buildings. While he didn’t know the exact number of people who were evacuated, he said evacuations were ordered within a half-mile around the center of Custer.
He said the train was carrying Bakken crude oil, so evacuations were ordered out of an abundance of caution. People are asked to avoid the incident site, as it’s not safe to approach, the sheriff’s office said.
BNSF has set up a claims hotline for people who have been impacted by the evacuation at 1-866-243-4784.
We are working to evacuate a 1/2 mile radius from the site of the derailment. Train cars are on fire. I-5 is closed in both directions from Grandview to Birch Bay Lynden Rd. Train cars are on fire.
AGAIN, PLEASE AVOID THE AREA. pic.twitter.com/OuqC5NAuoE
Wallace, with BNSF, said the first priority is safety issues and BNSF is working with local authorities to assess and mitigate the situation.
She said the cause of the derailment is under investigation.
“Our thoughts are with those who have been affected by this incident,” BNSF said on Twitter.
Washington State Patrol Trooper Heather Axtman said there were still a few small pools of oil on fire as of 2:45 p.m. on Tuesday. Axtman said fire officials determined the fires would burn themselves out in a little while. Axtman said at this time it’s believed there was no damage to nearby structures from the derailment.
The federal agency overseeing the safe transport of hazardous materials released a stunning explanation of its May 11 decision striking down a Washington state effort to regulate trains carrying volatile oil within its borders. A state cannot use “safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth,” wrote Paul J. Roberti, the chief counsel for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
The statement appeared in the Trump administration’s justification for overruling Washington’s oil train regulation, which was challenged by crude-producing North Dakota and oil industry lobbying groups. The Washington rule seeks to limit oil vapor pressure unloaded from trains to less than 9 pounds per square inch (psi) in an attempt to reduce the likelihood that train derailments lead to the now-familiar fireballs and explosions accompanying trains transporting volatile oil.
Roberti wrote: “Proponents of the law insist Washington State has a legitimate public interest to protect its citizens from oil train fires and explosions, but in the context of the transportation of crude oil by rail, a State cannot use safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth or instituting a de facto ban on crude oil by rail within its borders.”
With this statement, PHMSA is codifying what has been clear for some time at the regulatory agencies responsible for overseeing the transportation of hazardous materials by rail: that is, profits take priority over safety.
Rail Industry ‘Pre-emption’ and Safety Under Trump
A year ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), PHMSA‘s parent agency, invoked the same legal argument, known as “pre-emption,” to overrule state efforts to require at minimum two-person crews for operating freight trains. As part of the explanation for that decision, the DOT‘s Federal Railroad Administration announced that it was adopting a policy of deregulation.
“DOT’s approach to achieving safety improvements begins with a focus on removing unnecessary barriers and issuing voluntary guidance, rather than regulations that could stifle innovation,” wrote the agency.
A regulatory agency announcing a broad deregulatory agenda was shocking. However, this latest move openly declares that, while Washington state may have an interest in protecting its citizens from “oil train fires and explosions,” that concern should not get in the way of the oil industry’s ability to ship more of its product by rail through the state, apparently even if that increases the risk of oil train fires and explosions to Washington residents. This logic reaches a new level of prioritizing profits over people as regulatory practice.
On May 15, Pres. Trump designated @PHMSA_DOT Administrator Howard “Skip” Elliott as Acting @DOTInspectorGen after removing Mitch Behm from his position – raising concerns about conflicts of interest created by Elliott’s simultaneous roles as an agency head & Acting IG.
— Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (@TransportDems) May 19, 2020
Historically, or at least, theoretically, government has based regulations on cost-benefit analyses, weighing the costs of complying for the regulated entities against the benefits, such as lives saved or accidents prevented, as a result of the new rules. Here, the DOT‘s new regulatory approach appears to weigh primarily the benefits for the rail and oil industries while downplaying the potential cost in human lives.
However, these industries did argue about costs to get to this point. As DeSmog has repeatedly documented, lowering the vapor pressure of oil below 9 psi is possible through a process called stabilization, which makes oil less volatile and less likely to ignite. Conditioning the oil in this way before loading on trains would require the oil industry to invest in stabilization equipment, which the industry has argued is not economically feasible.
In 2014, Myron Goforth, the president of Dew Point Control LLC, a manufacturer of stabilization equipment, put the situation in simple terms. “It’s very easy to stabilize the crude — it just takes money,” Goforth told Reuters. “The producer doesn’t want to pay for it if he can ship it without doing it.”
DOT‘s May 11 decision notes that “compliance with the [Washington] law can only be accomplished by (1) pretreating the crude oil prior to loading the tank car.” Exactly: Making the oil safe to ship on long, heavy trains through small towns and large cities requires stabilizing, or conditioning, before loading it into tank cars (just as the industry does before loading oil in pipelines or on ocean-going tankers, at least in Texas). DOT makes no argument about how companies could comply with the Washington law, outside of trying to avoid passing through the state entirely or using a different transportation mode other than trains.
A particularly telling clue behind the DOT‘s conclusion that the Washington law should be pre-empted is found in the commenters whose opinions the agency is highlighting: “In light of the infrastructure, equipment, and other logistical issues, the commenters have concluded that pretreating is economically infeasible or unrealistic.”
At an oil-by-rail conference in 2016, an API official described the industry’s attitude about the prospect of requiring oil stabilization for rail transport: “We in the oil and gas industry see this as a very dangerous conversation.”
“‘In Trump’s America, states are on their own to protect the health and safety of their citizens — until it bumps against the wishes of the oil industry,’ said attorney Jan Hasselman.” https://t.co/IErYvEIbgh
In December 2017, Trump’s Federal Railroad Administration repealed an Obama-era rule requiring modern braking systems on oil trains despite overwhelming evidence that these systems improve rail safety. Sarah Feinberg, former head of the Federal Railroad Administration, offered important context about rail industry opposition to that rule.
“The science is there, the data is there,” Feinberg said of the efforts to require updated rail braking systems on oil trains. “Their argument is, despite that data, [they] don’t want to spend the money on it.”
That seems to be the rule for overseeing rail safety under the Trump administration. If a rule costs industry money to improve safety and protect the public from oil train fires and explosions, the industry will push back against its regulators, who appear to be pushovers, especially but not exclusively under Trump.
The alternative of prohibiting oil transportation by rail, because it is apparently too dangerous and too costly to do safely, is never even considered.
Ignoring the Science
The latest decision on the Washington state case continues a trend under Trump to overlook robust science when regulating oil by rail. However, you might not know it from the comments of this decision’s supporters.
The North Dakota Congressional delegation opened its statement praising the May 11 decision with lip service to science: “We thank the administration for doing the right thing by putting sound, scientific evidence above partisan politics.”
And yet these statements don’t stand up to scrutiny. In my book Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk, I present the evidence that Bakken crude oil’s volatility is higher than other regions and that this factor makes a difference. This crude oil is much more volatile than traditional crude oil from Louisiana or Texas, and that volatility, along with other factors, makes it more likely to ignite in oil train derailments.
WATCH: Justin Mikulka, Sept 2015: The Science of Bomb Trains
As I noted at the time of its publishing, the Sandia Labs study is deeply flawed and does not study the actual issue of oil igniting during train derailments.
As for whether Bakken oil’s volatility is “unusual,” a Wall Street Journal analysis found in 2014 that “Crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation contains several times the combustible gases as oil from elsewhere.” These combustible gases are what give the Bakken oil much higher vapor pressure levels than most other crude oils from the U.S.
The combustible gases in the oil are natural gas liquids like butane and propane, which is why the oil is so volatile.
At the same time that the oil industry tries to say Bakken oil isn’t more volatile than other oils, it argues that Bakken oil’s value lies in these extra natural gas liquids. Stabilizing the oil by removing these gases from the oil not only would cost the industry money but the resulting oil would be worth less to the industry.
The DOT notes as much in its recent decision: “These higher vapor pressure hazardous materials, such as butane, ethane, and other natural gases, are deemed essential and valuable components of Bakken crude.”
The oil industry has no argument to make on a scientific basis here, only an economic one. Reducing the vapor pressure of oil by removing gases like butane and ethane makes it less volatile and less likely to ignite. That is established by research. But the industry has repeatedly argued that removing these flammable gases from the oil would make it less valuable, which is one of its justifications for not stabilizing the oil.
A Second Bakken Bomb Train Boom Could Be on the Way
The only things that have kept the estimated 25 million North Americans living along railroad blast zones safer from dangerous oil trains is the success of activists who have blocked new oil-by-rail projects and oil industry economics. Because transporting oil by rail is more expensive than by pipeline or ocean-going tankers, the industry moves much less oil on trains when oil prices are low.
Oil train protesters in Albany, New York, in May 2016. Credit: Justin Mikulka
With current oil prices at record lows in the U.S. and Canada, it doesn’t make economic sense to move oil by rail, which is good news for the millions of people living along the rails.
However, a current legal battle over the Dakota Access pipeline could make moving Bakken oil by rail a major mode of transportation, perhaps regardless of oil price.
A judge recently set a hearing to review the permitting process for the controversial pipeline, currently moving 500,000 barrels of crude per day. Depending on the outcome, that hearing could result in the judge vacating the pipeline’s permits, shutting it down and diverting all of that Bakken oil back onto the rails in a big way, at levels that would surpass the records of 2014. The Obama administration passed oil train safety regulations in 2015 in response to the fiery accidents and oil spills that coincided with the boom in oil train traffic.
The Trump administration has steadily worked to roll back the modest progress of those safety rules, with the last one, on vapor pressure for oil by rail, withdrawn from the rulemaking process the very same day the DOT pre-empted Washington’s vapor pressure rule.
Now, an essentially unregulated oil-by-rail industry poses a real risk to public safety and the environment. With the Trump administration shooting down Washinton’s rule and repealing previous safety regulations, the risks of moving volatile oil by rail are essentially the same as in 2013. That was the same year a train hauling Bakken oil exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and killed 47 people.
Congressman Brian Higgins is calling on the Federal Railroad Administration to immediately investigate and publicly report on the details leading to a train derailment in East Aurora on Monday night. https://t.co/og2s74xRzY
Today, Bakken oil is just as volatile — and dangerous. The trains pulling upwards of a hundred cars of oil have the same outdated braking systems. Regulators have no requirements overseeing train track integrity or wear (the two latest oil train derailments and fires in Canada were likely because of track failures). There are no regulations on train length. And while rail companies have phased in a newer class of tank cars, those cars have ruptured in every major derailment involving oil and ethanol trains.
The accident in Lac-Mégantic happened almost seven years ago. An early Wall Street Journal article after the accident quoted an oil industry executive who said, “Crude oil doesn’t explode like that.”
Which is true in most cases. But Bakken crude does explode like that because it is full of gases like butane, is highly volatile, and has much higher vapor pressure than most other crude oils.
While that doesn’t have to be true, the Trump administration is taking steps to make sure it is.