Repost from The Sacramento Bee [Editor: The Bee’s editorial board hit the nail on the head, but not hard enough. Which is to say, the editors have joined with the chorus of legislators who want a good patch job for train wrecks that they presume are unstoppable. Oil train safety would be best guaranteed by pressing the federal government to ban oil trains. Allowing these “bomb trains” to rumble through our communities approaches criminal recklessness, and should be stopped. Big business does not – or at least should not – dictate the direction we take as a nation. – RS]
Editorial: First steps on oil train safety, but more to do
By the Editorial Board | Jun. 19, 2014
These are not all the steps that are needed, but it’s good to see the Legislature trying to get ahead of a potential (oil) train wreck. As part of the budget they approved Sunday, legislators added seven rail safety inspectors. They also included a 6.5-cent fee proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown on each barrel of crude oil that comes to California by rail. The $11 million or so raised annually will be used to prevent and clean up oil spills, especially in inland waterways.
On Monday, the state Senate passed a resolution urging the federal government to pass laws and rules to protect communities from oil train accidents, including tougher standards on tank cars, and to put “safety over cost effectiveness.” That sends an important message because so far, federal officials have not required enough of railroads and oil companies – either in safety measures or public disclosure – to keep pace with a rapid increase in rail shipments of oil extracted through hydraulic fracturing, especially in Canada and North Dakota.
But there’s more that California officials can do.
Sens. Jerry Hill of San Mateo and Lois Wolk of Davis have a bill for a second as-yet unspecified shipping fee on oil companies to fund training and equipment for firefighters and other first responders. A recent state report found that 40 percent of local firefighters are volunteers who generally don’t have the resources to handle major hazardous material spills.
First responders often don’t have all the information they need, either, as reporting by The Sacramento Bee has made clear. Assemblyman Roger Dickinson of Sacramento is pushing a bill to require companies to tell emergency officials about crude oil shipments. The latest version does away with an exemption from the state public records law; instead it says reports would be deemed “proprietary information” that could only be shared with “government personnel with emergency response, planning or security-related responsibilities on a need-to-know basis.”
Time is of the essence since oil trains could be running through the Sacramento region later this year. Valero Refining Co. is seeking approval to route two 50-car oil trains a day through Roseville, Sacramento, West Sacramento and Davis to its refinery in Benicia.
An environmental impact report released Tuesday offers some reassurances but no guarantees. The draft report concludes that while a crash or spill could be catastrophic, the likelihood of an incident is “very low.” The probability of a spill of 100 gallons or more along the 69 miles between Roseville and Benicia is calculated at once every 111 years.
Yet, it has happened elsewhere – six major oil train crashes in North America just in the last year, including the horrific fireball in Quebec that killed 47 residents.
More than 135,000 people in Sacramento and 25,000 in Davis live within a half-mile of rail tracks, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported Wednesday. They’re counting on legislators to do all they can to make sure oil trains pass safely through our cities.
Repost from the Bakersfield Californian [Editor: this is a MUST READ article, a comprehensive and graphic description of first-responder requirements and readiness. Someone needs to interview first responders in each of our Bay Area refinery towns, ask every single question referenced in this article, and lay out similar scenarios for the all-too-imaginable catastrophes that threaten our communities. – RS]
Increased oil train traffic raises potential for safety challenges
By John Cox, Californian staff writer | May 17, 2014
First responders think of the rail yard by Bakersfield High School when they envision the worst-case scenario in Kern County’s drive to become a major destination for Midwestern oil trains. If a derailment there punctures and ignites a string of tank cars, the fireball’s heat will be felt a mile away and flames will be a hundred feet high. Thick acrid black smoke will cover an area from downtown to Valley Plaza mall. Burning oil will flow through storm drains and sewers, possibly shooting flames up through manholes.
Some 3,000 BHS students and staff would have to be evacuated immediately. Depending on how many tank cars ignite, whole neighborhoods may have to be cleared, including patients and employees at 194-bed Mercy Hospital. State and county fire officials say local 911 call centers will be inundated, and overtaxed city and county firefighters, police and emergency medical services will have to call for help from neighboring counties and state agencies.
While the potential for such an accident has sparked urgency around the state and the country, it has attracted little notice locally — despite two ongoing oil car offloading projects that would push Kern from its current average of receiving a single mile-long oil train delivery about once a month, to one every six hours.
One project is Dallas-based Alon USA Energy Inc.’s proposed oil car offloading facility at the company’s Rosedale Highway refinery. The other is being developed near Taft by Plains All American Pipeline LP, based in Houston.
Kern’s two projects, and three others proposed around the state, would greatly reduce California’s thirst for foreign crude. State energy officials say the five projects should increase the amount of crude California gets by rail from less than 1 percent of the state’s supply last year to nearly a quarter by 2016.
But officials who have studied the BHS derailment scenario say more time and money should be invested in coordinated drills and additional equipment to prepare for what could be a uniquely difficult and potentially disastrous oil accident.
Bakersfield High Principal David Reese met late last year with representatives of Alon, which hopes to start bringing mile-long “unit trains” — two per day — through the rail yard near campus.
He said Alon’s people told him about plans for double-lined tank cars and other safety measures “to make me feel better” about the project. But he still worries.
“I told them, ‘You may assure me but I continue to be concerned about the safety of my students and staff with any new (rail) project that comes within the vicinity of the school,'” he said.
Alon declined to comment for this story.
Both projects aim to capitalize on the current price difference between light crude on the global market and Bakken Shale oil found in and around North Dakota. Thanks to the nation’s shale boom, the Midwest’s ability to produce oil has outpaced its capacity to transport it cheaper and more safely by pipeline. The resulting overabundance has depressed prices and prompted more train shipments.
There are no oil pipelines over the Rockies; rail is the next best mode of shipping oil to the West Coast. Kern County is viewed as an ideal place for offloading crude because of its oil infrastructure and experience with energy projects. Two facilities are proposed in Northern California, in Beniciaand Pittsburg; [emphasis added] the other would be to the south, in Wilmington.
A local refinery, Kern Oil & Refining Co., has accepted Bakken oil at its East Panama Lane plant since at least 2012. The California Energy Commission says Kern Oil receives one unit train every four to six weeks.
Shipments of Bakken present special safety concerns. The oil has been found to be highly volatile, and the common mode of transporting it — in quick-loading trains of 100 or more cars carrying more than 3 million gallons per shipment — rules out the traditional safety practice of placing an inert car as a buffer between two containing dangerous materials.
The dangers of shipping Bakken crude by unit train have been evident in several fiery derailments over the past year. One in July in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings when a 74-car runaway train jumped the tracks at 63 mph.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said 99.9 percent of U.S. oil rail cars reached their destination without incident last year. Two of its divisions, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, have issued emergency orders, safety advisories and special inspections relating to oil car shipments. New rules on tank car standards and operational controls for “high-hazard flammable trains” are in the federal pipeline.
Locally operating companies Union Pacific Railroad Co. and BNSF Railway Co. signed an agreement with the DOT to voluntarily lower train speeds, have more frequent inspections, make new investments in brake technology and conduct additional first-responder training.
Until new federal rules take effect next year, railroads can only urge their customers to use tank cars meeting the higher standards.
“UP does not choose the tank car,” Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt wrote in an email. “We encourage our shippers to retrofit or phase out older cars.”
The San Joaquin Valley Railroad Co., owned by Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming Inc., is a short line that carries Kern Oil’s oil shipments and would serve the Plains project but not Alon’s. A spokesman said SJVR is working with the larger railroads to upgrade its line, and the company inspects tracks ahead of every unit train arrival, among other measures designed just for oil shipments.
STATE LEVEL PROPOSALS
Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a big change in the way California protects against and responds to oil spills.
His 2014-15 budget calls for $6.7 million in new spending on the state’s Oil Spill Prevention and Administration Fund to add 38 inland positions, a 15 percent staffing increase. Currently the agency focuses on ocean shipments, which have been the norm for out-of-state oil deliveries in California.
To help pay for the expansion, Brown wants to expand a 6.5 cent-per-barrel fee to not only marine terminals but all oil headed for California refineries.
“We’ll have a more robust response capability,” said Thomas Cullen, an administrator at the Office of Spill Prevention and Response, which is within the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
A representative of the oil trade group Western States Petroleum Association criticized the proposal March 19 at a legislative joint hearing in Sacramento. Lobbyist Ed Manning said OSPR lacks inland reach, and that giving such responsibilities to an agency with primarily marine experience “doesn’t really respond to the problem.”
WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd has emphasized the group has not taken a position on Brown’s OSPR proposal.
Also at the state capitol, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, has forwarded legislation requiring railroads to give first responders more information about incoming oil shipments and publicly share spill contingency plans. The bill, AB 380, would also direct state grants toward local contingency planning and training. It is pending before the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.
In recent years Kern County has conducted large-scale, multi-agency emergency drills to prepare for an earthquake, disease outbreak and Isabella Dam break. There has not been a single oil spill drill.
Emergency service officials say that’s not as bad as it sounds because disasters share common actions — notification, evacuation, decontamination.
Nevertheless, State Fire and Rescue Chief Kim Zagaris, County Fire Chief Brian Marshall and Kern Emergency Services Manager Georgianna Armstrong support the idea of local oil spill drills involving public safety agencies, hospitals and others.
Kern County is well-versed at handling hazardous materials. Some local officials say an oil accident may actually be less dangerous than the release of toxic chemicals, which also travel through the county on a regular basis.
There have been recent accidents, but all were relatively minor.
Federal records list 18 oil or other hazardous material spills on Kern County railroads in the last 10 years. No one was injured; together the accidents caused $752,000 in property damage.
Most involved chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid. Only two resulted in crude oil spills, both in 2013 in the 93305 ZIP code in the city of Bakersfield. Together they spilled a little more than a gallon of oil.
But the risk of spills rises significantly as the volume of oil passing through the county grows.
“The volume is a big deal,” Bakersfield Fire Chief Douglas R. Greener said. “Potentially, if you have a train derail, you could see numerous cars of the same type of material leaking all at once.”
Kern County firefighters are better prepared for an oil spill than many other first responders around the state. They train on an actual oil tanker and have special tools to mend rail car punctures and gashes. The county fire department has several trucks carrying spray foam that suffocates industrial fires.
But Chief Marshall acknowledged a bad rail accident could strain the department’s resources.
He has been speaking with Alon about securing additional firefighting equipment and foam to ensure an appropriate response to any oil train derailment related to the company’s proposed offloading facility.
What comes of those talks is expected to be included in an upcoming environmental review of the project.
“We recognize the need to increase our industrial firefighting program,” Marshall said.
Chief Zagaris said Kern’s proximity to on-call emergency agencies in Tulare, Kings and Los Angeles counties may come in handy under the Bakersfield High spill scenario, which is based on fire officials’ assessments and reports from several similar incidents over the past year.
He and Marshall would not estimate how many people would require evacuation in the event of a disaster near the school, or what specific levels of emergency response might become necessary.
But Zagaris said local public safety officials would almost certainly require outside help to assess injuries, transfer people in need of medical care, secure the city and contain the spill itself.
“I look at it as, you know, depending what it is and where it happens will dictate how quickly” outside resources would have to be pulled in, he said.
California’s Senate Committees on Environmental Quality, and Natural Resources and Water are holding a joint hearing on Emergency Response to Rail Accidents today to talk about oil spill response in the event of a crude oil train accident. This is important given the spate of crude oil train accidents over the past year as oil rail transport has boomed, and as California faces the prospect of new oil rail terminals and up to 25% of crude oil coming to this coastal state by rail (see here, here and here).
It’s good to see the state improving oil spill response planning and resources, including the Governor’s proposal to collect fees from oil rail transport for potential clean-ups. But we need the state to do more than just mop up oil spills after accidents. We need a comprehensive review of the public safety implications of all of the new oil terminal proposals before they are built and a focus on human health (in addition to wildlife).
First, does it make sense for the state to invest in new fossil fuel infrastructure like oil rail terminals, when petroleum product use is in decline? A recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance report predicts a 13 percent drop in gasoline and diesel used in California by 2020 despite a growing population.
Third, should the state disclose what these crude oil trains are carrying, how much of it, how often they run and exactly which rail routes they take? The public has a right to know when mile long trains filled with hazardous cargo are passing by their front porches.
Fifth, if a rail yard suddenly decides to take 100 car unit trains of crude oil, shouldn’t there be a public process and government oversight to determine whether that is safe and appropriate? Last week a news report revealed that the Kinder Morgan rail terminal in Richmond was quietly permitted by the Bay Area Air District to receive mile long crude oil trains every day without any public disclosure whatsoever. Even the CEC didn’t know about it until a news station broke the story. In the same story, the Air district stated cavalierly that they’re not concerned about this terminal, which happens to be in the middle of Richmond, a city that has endured significant historic and ongoing pollution from the Chevron refinery and other industrial activities.
These questions should be discussed at the rail safety hearing today. It’s easy to dismiss the public concern over crude by rail safety before an accident happens. In fact, the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec, may not have been concerned about crude oil trains running through it until the day one derailed, exploded and wiped out the downtown area taking 47 lives last July.
Given that terrible tragedy in Quebec last summer and all the fiery crude oil train derailments since then, the thought of 100 tanker car trains filled with highly volatile, explosion-prone Bakken crude oil going through the densely populated Bay Area ought to give some pause to government authorities. Communities all along crude oil rail routes are waking up to this new reality and they’re concerned.
It’s encouraging to see some steps to address oil rail risks in other regions. Albany, New York just placed a moratorium on the expansion of the processing of crude oil at the Port of Albany pending a public health investigation by the Albany County Health Department. The City of Seattle passed a resolution last week urging adoption of state legislation and federal regulations; state assessment of risks; railroad company restriction of petroleum transport through Seattle; and update of City incident response plans to address the potential safety, environmental, and economic impacts of petroleum transport by rail. Similar efforts are under way in Spokane.
A few weeks ago the Mayor of Benicia called on the Governor to issue an executive order to ensure that the state is prepared to deal with the highly flammable and explosive Bakken crude oil from North Dakota coming into California. That would be a great starting place for California to get out ahead of the looming oil by rail safety crisis in this state.
Additional note: Visiting a Southern California rail yard today, watching trains get built, plenty of DOT-111 tanker cars were in the mix.