Crude oil is not normally considered explosive. But lighter crude from the Bakken Shale formation of North Dakota, suddenly being shipped through the East Bay, is entirely different.
It contains several times the combustible gases as oil from elsewhere, according to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis. Randy Sawyer, Contra Costa County’s hazardous materials chief, considers it as explosive as gasoline.
In Quebec last summer, a train carrying Bakken crude derailed, exploded and killed 47 people. Subsequently, derailed trains in Alabama and North Dakota exploded.
“Given the recent derailments and subsequent reaction of the Bakken crude in those incidents, not enough is known about this crude,” Sarah Feinberg, chief of staff at the U.S. Transportation Department, told the Journal.
Yet, long trains carrying the volatile cargo started traveling through the East Bay last year. This calls for aggressive oversight from Martinez to Sacramento to Washington — before we have a disaster on our hands.
According to the governor’s office, rail shipments of oil into the state, including Bakken crude, are expected to increase from 3 million barrels to approximately 150 million barrels per year by 2016.
Kinder Morgan is unloading some of that cargo in Richmond, just blocks from an elementary school and the Point Richmond and Atchison Village neighborhoods, and transferring it to tanker trucks.
At least some of it is going to Tesoro Refinery near Martinez, according to Sawyer and a report by KPIX Channel 5. Tesoro — which recently demonstrated its lack of candor after two acid spills that sent four workers to hospitals — refuses to say whether it’s processing Bakken crude.
The implications are profound. The notion of transporting massive quantities of highly combustible crude through local neighborhoods should alarm the federal Department of Transportation, which regulates rail shipping.
The long trains are going right through the districts of Reps. George Miller, D-Martinez, and Mike Thompson, D-Napa. They must demand answers from the administration about why it allows this to proceed when so little is known.
At the local level, the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors must examine the adequacy of the county’s Industrial Safety Ordinance to make sure it can ensure that Tesoro and any other refinery that uses Bakken crude has taken adequate precautions.
Sawyer, the county’s environmental hazards chief, didn’t even know Bakken fuel was coming into the county until he saw recent press reports. Clearly the system is broken.
A California Energy Commission official Friday said the agency wasn’t aware that the state had become a destination for crude oil shipments by rail, even though Gov. Jerry Brown‘s budget proposal made note of it two months ago.
The Bee identified at least two locations where crude oil was being unloaded from trains, including Richmond and Bakersfield, with several more terminals under development.
But Gordon Schremp, senior fuels specialist at the commission, told CBS San Francisco Friday that “we don’t have any of those facilities operating in California.”
When the TV station showed him video of rail cars of crude oil at the Kinder Morgan facility in Richmond, Schremp modified his statement.
“It’s certainly a recent change that you know, we haven’t been made aware of that,” he told the TV station.
State and local officials across the country have become concerned about the safety of crude shipments by train since a derailment killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July, and leveled the center of the town with explosive force.
Many communities, from Washington state to New York state, have voted to bar the expansion of such operations until their safety is improved. But it’s not clear that those measures have any legal authority, because the job of regulating rail shipments falls to the federal government.
Railroads and the Department of Transportation last month agreed to a series of voluntary safety improvements, but many state and local officials would like to see more swift, decisive actions from the federal government to protect their communities.
Here is the CBS San Francisco report:
PHOTO: In this July 6, 2013 file photo, emergency workers examine the aftermath of a train derailment and fire in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada. Forty-seven people were killed. U.S. federal regulators are further tightening testing requirements for companies that transport oil by rail after a spate of explosions caused by crude train derailments in the U.S. and Canada. Associated Press/Ryan Remiorz)
WASHINGTON Wary of a series of fiery train derailments elsewhere in North America, California officials are bracing for a huge increase in the amount of crude oil transported by rail into the state and the dangers it brings with it.
The state budget plan Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled this week bolsters the state Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, increasing its budget by $6.7 million and adding 38 staff members, “to address the increased risk of inland oil spills.”
The move comes as California’s Energy Commission projects that rail deliveries of crude oil could increase to as much of a quarter of the state’s total by 2016. In 2012, only 0.2 percent of the 598 million barrels of oil received by state refiners came by rail, according to the commission. Nearly two-thirds arrived by ocean-going vessels, and another third by pipeline.
Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which includes the oil spill unit, said the state is preparing for a shift in deliveries by more traditional modes to rail, and the risks associated with it.
“We’ve exceeded pipeline capacity, and that distribution is now shifting to rail,” he said. “In California, that change means we may see less of our oil coming in through marine terminals and more by rail into the state.”
The volume of crude oil shipped by rail has increased exponentially in just the past few years, and many state and federal agencies are scrambling to adjust their emergency response plans. Trains brought about 3 million barrels of oil to California last year. In two years, it could be 143 million.
Especially worrisome is oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region, which federal officials have come to believe is more flammable than the more conventional oils California produces or imports. And most of the railroad tank cars that carry it to California and other states have proved vulnerable to ruptures or punctures in a derailment.
In July, an unattended crude oil train derailed and exploded in the lakeside town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. A similar train derailed in Alabama in November, followed by another in North Dakota last month. Though both accidents resulted in spectacular fires and limited evacuations, no one was injured or killed.
The rail industry and its Washington regulators insist that railroads have a good safety record. The Association of American Railroads, an industry group, says 99.997 percent of hazardous materials shipped by rail reach their destination without incident. The Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees the nation’s rail network, said 2012 was the industry’s safest year on record.
Initially, rail was a stopgap measure taken as proposed pipeline expansions encountered delays. But producers discovered its advantages. Though it costs more to ship by rail than by pipeline, it’s faster, has more capacity and can go pretty much anywhere pipelines don’t.
Crude oil is already moving into California by rail. BNSF Railway, the nation’s largest rail carrier of crude oil, now hauls entire trainloads from North Dakota to refineries in Richmond and Bakersfield. Though the shipments are infrequent, plans are in the works to enable six more locations in California to refine oil brought in by train or transfer it to ships or pipelines. If all are completed, five or six 80- to 100-car trains a day would supply about 25 percent of the state’s oil needs.
Bonham said the 245-member oil-spill unit is adapting to a shifting risk. To fund its expansion, the agency will begin collecting a fee of 6.5 cents a barrel to all crude oil shipped to refineries. Currently the fee only applies to marine shipments. Bonham predicts rail will largely displace tankers coming from Alaska or foreign countries.
The largest chemical spill in state history was the result of a rail accident. In July 1991, a Southern Pacific freight train derailed near the northern California town of Dunsmuir, with one tank car spilling 19,000 gallons of a pesticide into the Sacramento River. The toxic green chemical created a vapor cloud that made residents ill and killed a million fish in a 42-mile stretch of contaminated river.
One tank car can carry about 30,000 gallons of crude oil. Canadian authorities estimate that the train that derailed in Quebec spilled 1.5 million gallons, leaving an environmental catastrophe as well as a human one.
BNSF and Union Pacific, the state’s other major railroad, plan to increase their shipments of crude oil to the state in unit trains. Both railroads operate trains through downtown Sacramento and the state’s other major population centers and along its major waterways, creating new potential hazards for communities and the environment.
“It’s not going to be just one car,” said Tom Cullen, administrator of the state oil-spill unit. “We know it’s going to be more.”
California officials say they’ve dealt with large amounts of oil spilled from marine vessels and inland wells.
“We’re not going through this blindly,” Cullen said. “We appreciate what we’re taking on.”
What does worry them, however, is Bakken crude’s flammability.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration last week warned that the oil is more hazardous than others and should be handled with extra care. The tendency of older, less protected tank cars to fail in derailments has compounded the concern. Some members of Congress and the rail industry are pushing regulators to move faster on new standards for tank car construction.