The Best Of A Worst Case Scenario: How Bad Could The Mosier Oil Train Spill Have Been?
By EMILY SCHWING • AUG 10, 2016
If it had to happen, the worst case scenario couldn’t have played out more smoothly. That’s the sentiment in Mosier, Oregon, where a train loaded with highly volatile Bakken crude oil derailed two months ago.
On the day of the accident, 14 cars bent and folded like an accordion across the tracks. Four of them caught fire, but the wind was oddly quiet, so a subsequent fire didn’t spread like it could have. And as they careened off the track, oil cars narrowly missed the trestle of an overpass that serves as one of only two routes into town.
“Living here in Mosier, it was the best of a worst case scenario,” local Walter Menge said. “I mean it could have been so much worse.”
Bob Schwarz is a project manager with Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality. Lately, he’s been giving a lot of media tours of the accident site.
“We’re standing near a manhole where the lid was sheared off by one of the cars and it caused a lot of the oil to flow into the manhole to the wastewater treatment plant which is about 200 feet from us right now,” Schwarz said. “And that captured quite a bit of the oil fortunately, which kept it from getting into the Columbia River.”
Schwarz said some of that oil did seep into the groundwater, although it’s not clear how much.
“We’re measuring it in hundreds of parts per billion with a ‘b,’ so it’s a very small mass,” Schwarz said. “But the levels are still high enough for us to have to clean it up.”
Despite all the luck, there are still a few unknowns, like where all that spilled oil might go.
“I’m concerned about all the animals in the wetlands,” Schwarz said.
Schwarz wouldn’t say whether the cleanup effort is moving fast or slow. He did say DEQ is ‘pleased with how things are progressing’ and said Union Pacific Railroad, the company that was transporting the oil, has been ‘extremely cooperative.’
Oil Train Insurance: Washington State and the Billion Dollar Disaster
By Alex Ramel, extreme oil campaign field director, March 28, 2016
Washington is now one of only two states that requires railroads to disclose whether they have sufficient insurance to cover a “reasonable worst case spill.” This is a step in the right direction. But the new rule falls far short of requiring enough insurance to cover a catastrophic oil train derailment, spill and explosion.
The new State rule requires that any major rail company operating in Washington — today, only BNSF — report whether they have sufficient financial resources or insurance to cover the costs of an oil train spill of around $700 million (smaller railroads have smaller requirements). That’s better than nothing, which is what most states have. But it’s not nearly enough.
The deadly Lac Megantic oil train disaster cost more than $1 billion (see page 98 in the federal regulations) and the cost of rebuilding is more like $2.7 billion. As terrible as the Lac Megantic disaster was, and it was a heartbreaking catastrophe, a worst case oil train disaster in Washington could be even much worse.
Washington State’s failure to require railroads to pay the full and true cost of doing business in Washington is an even greater concern if it becomes a precedent in other states. The confusing, undefined phrase “reasonable worst case” appears to have already been copied into a proposed bill in the New York State Assembly.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration suggested that a disaster inside a major city could cost $12.6 billion (see page 110). What could a $12 billion derailment look like? BNSF runs oil trains within 20 yards of Safeco Field in downtown Seattle during Mariners games when fans are in the stands.
Insurance monetizes risk, assigning a direct cost to risky behavior and assigning financial value to safety. What would your homeowners insurance company do if you wanted to unload oil tanker trucks in your driveway? They would raise your rates (astronomically) or cancel your policy. Railroads, which operate without requirements to carry adequate insurance, make decisions about assuming risk without an important financial feedback loop. If railroads had to be properly insured for the risk to life, property, and the environment from oil trains, there would be far fewer or zero oil trains.
Last year BNSF was fined for 14 spills and leaks and for failing to report problems along the track in Washington. The summer before that three oil tank cars tipped over in downtown Seattle. Over the last two years four BNSF oil trains have derailed and either spilled or exploded in Casselton, ND, Galena, IL, Heimdal, ND, and Culbertson, MT. Under usual circumstances a safety record like that should lead to a very awkward conversation with an insurance agent. And an already expensive, high-risk policy should get even more expensive. But BNSF doesn’t seem to carry enough insurance to cover the real cost of an oil train disaster, and they don’t seem to care.
BNSF has already intimated that they don’t think that the state should be able to require insurance, and it is likely that the company will challenge the rule. The railroad wants the cost of insurance and the calculation of possible damages kept off of their books. That means that in addition to living with the risk, the public is also asked to shoulder the cost. That’s the most unreasonable proposition yet.
House bill could shield oil train spill response plans from disclosure
By Curtis Tate, October 16, 2015
Oil burns at the site of a March 5, 2015, train derailment near Galena, Ill. A bill in Congress would require railroads to have comprehensive oil spill response plans, but would also give the Secretary of Transportation the ability to exempt the details from disclosure. EPA
Six-year transportation bill includes section on oil trains
Obama administration supports public notifications of oil spills, etc.
Future transportation secretary could be empowered to protect data
WASHINGTON – A House of Representatives bill unveiled Friday could make it more difficult for the public to know how prepared railroads are for responding to oil spills from trains, their worst-case scenarios and how much oil is being transported by rail through communities.
The language appears in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s six-year transportation legislation, which primarily addresses federal programs that support state road, bridge and transit projects. But the legislation also includes a section on oil trains.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is working on a rule to require railroads shipping oil to develop comprehensive spill response plans along the lines of those required for pipelines and waterborne vessels. It would also require them to assess their worst-case scenarios for oil spills, including quantity and location.
The House bill would give the secretary of transportation the power to decide what information would not be disclosed to the public.
The secretary would have discretion to withhold anything proprietary or security sensitive, as well as “specific response resources and tactical resource deployment plans” and “the specific amount and location of worst-case discharges, including the process by which a railroad carrier determines the worst-case discharge.”
The House bill defines “worst-case discharge” as the largest foreseeable release of oil in an accident or incident, as determined by the rail carrier.
Four major oil train derailments have occurred in the U.S. since the beginning of the year, resulting in the release of more than 600,000 gallons, according to federal spill data.
Numerous states have released information on crude by rail shipments to McClatchy and other news organizations. DOT began requiring railroads to notify state officials of such shipments last year after a train derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Va.
The disclosures were opposed by railroads and their trade associations, which asked the department to drop the requirement. The department tried to accommodate the industry’s concerns in its May final rule on oil train safety by making the reports exempt from disclosure. But facing backlash from lawmakers and emergency response groups, the department reversed itself.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, and Sarah Feinberg, the acting chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the department would continue the disclosure requirement and make it permanent. But a new administration could take a different approach.
“We strongly support transparency and public notification to the fullest extent possible,” Feinberg said in July.
In May, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that would require railroads operating in the state to plan for their worst-case spills.
In April, BNSF Railway told state emergency responders that the company currently considers 150,000 gallons of crude oil, enough to fill five rail tank cars, its worst-case scenario when planning for spills into waterways. A typical 100-car oil train carries about 3 million gallons.
Washington state requires marine ships that transport oil to plan for a spill of the entire cargo.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted a mock derailment in New Jersey in March in which 450,000 gallons of oil was released.
California passed a similar bill last year, but two railroads and a major trade association challenged it in court, claiming the federal laws regulating railroads preempted state laws. A judge sided with the state in June, but without addressing the preemption question.
The House Transportation Committee will consider the six-year bill when lawmakers return from recess next week. The current legislation expires on Oct. 29, and the timing makes a short-term extension likely.
After the committee and the full House vote on the bill, House and Senate leaders will have to work out their differences before the bill goes to the president’s desk.
Samantha Wohlfeil of the Bellingham (Wash.) Herald contributed.