Government numbers on crude-oil train safety don’t add up

Repost from The Sacramento Bee

Government numbers on crude-oil train safety don’t add up

By Curtis Tate McClatchy Newspapers  |  Monday, Jun. 16, 2014
A train carrying tanker cars filled with crude oil passes through St. Paul, Minnesota, on February 27, 2013. The crude oil is loaded in at terminals in North Dakota and Canada and taken to refineries in the east. Jim Gehrz / Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT

The State Department projects 28 more fatalities and 189 more injuries a year if crude oil moves by rail instead of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Sounds bad, but is it true?

The railroad industry and its Washington regulators boast that more than 99.99 percent of hazardous materials rail shipments reach their destinations safely.

Sounds good, but is it good enough?

The debate over moving the nation’s surging oil production by rail has generated a heated debate, and some impressive-sounding numbers that both sides have used to bolster their cases.

On closer scrutiny, however, some of those numbers don’t add up.

Earlier this month, the State Department increased its earlier projections of injuries and fatalities if Keystone XL’s 830,000 barrels a day were to move by rail. Major media organizations and pipeline supporters framed the new numbers as a downside to not building the controversial project.

But the department’s detailed explanation for its revisions shows why the numbers don’t really reveal anything about the risks of transporting crude oil by rail.

In its January Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed 1,700-mile pipeline, the department calculated the rail impacts of the no-build scenario based on a decade of Federal Railroad Administration accident statistics. The analysis used the annual rate of injuries and fatalities per million ton-miles, a common measure of rail traffic, from 2002 to 2012.

An error report published June 6 said the original analysis underreported the potential injuries and fatalities “due to an error in search parameters used.” However, the report’s authors concede that their calculations don’t actually measure the risk of shipping crude oil. Large volumes of crude oil weren’t shipped by rail until 2011.

The 10-year injury and fatality rates were instead derived from accidents that involved trains carrying every type of cargo that moves by rail, from coal and grain to french fries and auto parts.

“Because the dataset does not distinguish petroleum or crude oil rail transportation from that of other cargo,” the department wrote, “these incident rates are not directly correlated to the type of product/commodity being transported.”

The State Department’s analysis does measure potential injuries and fatalities if more trains are put on the tracks. But that isn’t terribly useful, either, because while crude oil shipments have surged, other commodities have declined.

Changes in the economy and environmental rules mean there are considerably fewer trains of coal, long the industry’s mainstay. According to the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy group, railroads moved 13,000 fewer trainloads of coal in 2012 than they did in 2008.

Moving oil by rail instead of Keystone XL would add about 4,380 trains a year, only a third of the lost coal traffic.

Fred W. Frailey, a journalist who’s covered railroads for decades and is widely regarded as the dean of writers on that subject, questioned the State Department’s analysis.

“It strikes me as totally meaningless,” he said. “It doesn’t speak at all to the danger of hauling oil.”

A spokeswoman for the department declined to comment about the report.

As several derailments involving crude oil trains made headlines in the past year, the industry has repeatedly defended its safety record. But what’s on the other side of that 99.99 percent?

According to industry figures, railroads moved 400,000 carloads of crude oil in 2013, up from fewer than 10,000 five years earlier. With each tank car carrying 30,000 gallons, that’s about 12 billion gallons last year.

A McClatchy analysis of oil spill data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in January showed that about 1.2 million gallons of crude oil spilled from trains in 2013 _ more than the previous 38 years combined.

If only 1.2 million of the 12 billion gallons spilled, that’s a safety record of 99.99 percent.

The country experienced two major crude-oil derailments last year. A derailment near Aliceville, Ala., in November released 748,000 gallons into a wetland. Another just after Christmas spilled 475,000 gallons near Casselton, N.D.

But the total excludes spills outside U.S. borders, even if the cargo originated domestically. More than 1.5 million gallons of North Dakota crude oil spilled in last July’s catastrophic and deadly derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The fiery accident killed 47 people and leveled much of the center of the lakeside resort town.

At the end of a two-day National Transportation Safety Board rail-safety forum in April, board member Robert Sumwalt, who spent 24 years in aviation, told the rail industry that its much-touted safety record was nothing to brag about.

“You’re in a business where that’s not good enough,” Sumwalt said.

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