Rail security requires local oversight of Bakken crude shipments
By Denise Rucker Krepp, 2014-09-09
The District of Columbia Council uncovered a serious homeland security flaw this week that should raise red flags for mayors and town managers around the country. In the nation’s capitol, local transportation officials aren’t conducting oversight over CSX and the goods it transports through the city. Similarly, officials are unfamiliar with the rail carrier’s security policies. DC transportation officials, as traditionally classified by the federal government, aren’t rail stakeholders with a need to know this information.
Rail stakeholders, as defined by the Transportation Security Administration, are class 1 freight railroads (CSX, Norfolk Southern), Amtrak, and regional and short line railroads. Members of these companies advise TSA on rail security matters and TSA provides them with security information. This relationship is further solidified in TSA’s strategic plan. The exclusive club does not include first responders nor local representatives from the communities through which the rail carriers transport goods.
By not including cities and towns as part of their stakeholder group, TSA has weakened the nation’s rail security system. Mayors and town managers control the first responder assets that will be used when the next Lac Megantic or Lynchburg occurs. TSA, however, as DC transportation officials told the DC Council this week, doesn’t require local officials to review rail security plans covering their jurisdiction. Absent a comprehensive review, they won’t know if their assets are sufficient to respond to a significant accident.
TSA’s definition of rail stakeholder was upended this summer when Secretary of Transportation Foxx mandated that rail carriers share information regarding Bakken crude with local officials. For the first time, a federal department broadened the definition to include first responders and emergency managers. The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act included information sharing requirements but TSA never followed through with them.
The lack of knowledge is problematic because local officials approve rail permits for projects like the proposed Virginia Avenue Tunnel project in DC. These officials however, have not include homeland security threat information in their permit analysis. They couldn’t. Local officials didn’t have this information before Secretary Foxx’s order. Thankfully, his order will increase the flow of information to local officials and will enable them to finally complete a more thorough analysis before making critical permitting decisions.
It’s my hope that Secretary Foxx’s order will be formalized by the Department of Homeland Security. DHS indicated in its Spring 2014 unified regulatory agenda, that TSA will be drafting regulations concerning rail security plans and other measures outlined in the 9/11 Act. These regulations will firmly establish the federal government’s expectations and one of these should be the inclusion of state and local officials in the decision making process.
Denise Rucker Krepp is an attorney, transportation and energy consultant, former special counsel to DOT and the U.S. Congress, and author of the 9/11 Rail provisions.
Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald [Editor: … as if risks of derailment and explosion weren’t enough to worry about… – RS]
Legislation to enhance crude-by-rail safety passes House
Times-Herald staff report | 06/05/2014
Following an increase in crude oil by rail to the Bay Area, Rep. Mike Thompson has authored legislation aimed at making it safer to transport the highly flammable cargo.
The legislation, which would require an assessment of domestic refinery and rail-related infrastructure, passed the House of Representatives last week by a bipartisan vote of 345 to 59.
It’s currently in the Senate.
“Public safety is the number one priority when we’re transporting and holding crude oil and other cargo through and in our communities,” Thompson said Thursday. “This legislation will let us know if threats exist and how we can fix them.”
Thompson’s district includes three refineries, including the Valero Benicia Refinery, which is seeking approval of a major crude-by-rail terminal. The project’s environmental impact report is due out next week.
Bakken crude from North Dakota, regarded as more flammable than other crudes, is part of the mix of increased crude-by-rail shipments to California. The legislation would require the Department of Homeland Security Office of Intelligence and Analysis to conduct an intelligence assessment of the safety of refinery and crude-by-rail infrastructure. After the assessment is conducted, safety recommendations would be submitted to the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Rail transport of oil poses risk to Lake Champlain
By Lake Champlain Committee Staff Scientist Mike Winslow | April, 2014
The sound of trains clacking along the rails that abut Lake Champlain has become more common recently with the dramatic increase in freight traffic attributed to fossil fuel extraction. Each week approximately 60 million gallons of oil travel along the lake carried by 20 trains with up to 100 cars each. The U.S. now meets 66 percent of its crude oil demand from production in North America with tremendous growth in outputs from Canada and the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. In October 2013 U.S. crude oil production exceeded imports for the first time since February 1995.
Oil produced from the Bakken fields is very light. That means it flows easily, but it also means it is more volatile and flammable. As a result, the potential property damage and loss of life associated with rail accidents involving Bakken oil is higher than oil from other sources. In January of this year two federal agencies issued a safety alert warning of these risks.
The alert was triggered by a series of devastating accidents. The Federal Railroad Administration statistics suggest that on average at least one car slips off the tracks every day. There have been six major derailments between the beginning of 2013 and mid-January 2014. The most infamous occurred on July 5, 2013, in Lac Megantic, Quebec. An improperly secured train began rolling on its own, and 63 cars derailed near the center of town. Derailment led to multiple explosions and fires, evacuation of 2,000 people, and 47 fatalities. On Oct. 19, 2013, 13 tank cars derailed in Alberta leading to evacuation of 100 residents. Three cars carrying propane burned following an explosion. On Nov. 8, 2013, 30 cars derailed in a wetland near Aliceville, Ala., and about a dozen were decimated by fire. On Dec. 30, 2013, two trains, one carrying grain and one oil, collided in Casselton, N.D. Twenty of the oil train cars derailed and exploded leading to evacuation of 1,400 people. On Jan. 7, 2014, 17 cars derailed in New Brunswick and five exploded leading to evacuation of 45 people. On Jan. 20, 2014, seven cars derailed on a bridge over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, though no oil leaked. More recently, 15-17 cars derailed in Lynchburg, Va., on April 30. Three fell into the James River and one burst into flames. There were no injuries but 300-350 people had to be evacuated and oil leaked into the James River. The state estimated 20,000 to 25,000 gallons escaped during the wreck.
Our region is no stranger to train derailments. In 2007, a northbound Vermont Railways freight train derailed in Middlebury spilling gasoline into Otter Creek and leading to the evacuation of 30 streets in the vicinity. Trains have also derailed along the Lake Champlain route. In 2007, 12 cars derailed near Route 22 in Essex, N.Y., the same stretch of tracks now carrying volatile oil.
Concern over the state of North American freight rail safety predates the increase in oil shipments. In 2006 the Toronto Star ran a five-part series on rail safety. They noted “Canadian freight trains are running off the rails in near record numbers and spilling toxic fluids at an alarming rate, but only a tiny fraction of the accidents are ever investigated.”
In contrast to Bakken field oil, tar sands oil is very heavy. Cleanup of tar sands oil following accidents is extremely difficult. The oil sinks rather than floating, making containment very difficult.
The greatly increased traffic in oil has further strained railroad infrastructure. According to an article in Pacific Standard Magazine, 85 percent of the 92,000 tank cars that haul flammable liquids around the nation are standard issue DOT-111s. They have been referred to as “Pepsi cans on wheels.” These cars are built to carry liquids, but lack specialized safety features found in pressurized tanks used for hauling explosive liquids. The industry has agreed to include additional safety features in any new cars put on the tracks, but since rail cars have an economic life of 30 to 40 years, conversion to the newer cars has been slow.
One relatively new risk is the predominance of “unit trains.” These are long series of cars all shipped from the same originating point to the same destination. Often the cars will all carry the same product. It used to be that oil cars were mixed in with other freight cars bound for different locations. Unit trains are a greater risk in part because safety standards are based on the carrying capacity of a single car and don’t account for the greater volumes that unit trains can transport. The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating accidents, has called on the Federal Railroad Administration to change this standard.
Recently, an oil company submitted plans to build an oil heating facility in Albany, N.Y. The facility would be used to heat oil shipped via rail. The oil would then be transferred to barges and floated to refineries. If permitted, a heating facility would draw increased transport of Canadian tar sands, which needs to be diluted or heated for loading or unloading, through the Lake Champlain region. In contrast to Bakken field oil, tar sands oil is very heavy. Cleanup of tar sands oil following accidents is extremely difficult. The oil sinks rather than floating, making containment very difficult. When a pipeline carrying tar sands oil broke near Kalamazoo, Mich., 850,000 gallons spilled. The resulting cleanup cost over $1 billion and costs were “substantially higher than the average cost of cleaning up a similar amount of conventional oil,” according to a report prepared by the Congressional Research Service.
In November of 2013, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) declared the proposed facility would have no significant environmental impacts. However, public outrage led them to reconsider that declaration, expand the public comment period, and seek additional information from the proponents. Still, the additional requested information only touches the tip of the facility’s impacts on the region. The facility should undergo a full environmental impact review that includes potential impacts on freight shipping throughout the region including along Lake Champlain.
The increased risk associated with more oil transport along Lake Champlain and in the region seemed to catch regulators by surprise, but they are reacting now. On Jan. 28, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order directing several state agencies to do a top-to-bottom review of safety procedures and emergency response preparedness related to rail shipments of oil. On Feb. 26, Sen. Schumer called for the phase-out of all DOT-111 rail cars and reduction in rail speed limits in heavily populated areas. On March 4, Cuomo sent a letter to the secretaries of the departments of Homeland Security and Transportation urging them to expedite and strengthen rail safety standards, require reporting by railroad companies of derailments, increase inspections and identify and track rail cars carrying crude oil. On April 10, the DEC issued a joint press release with EPA and the Coast Guard committing the agencies to enhance emergency preparedness and response capabilities for potential crude oil incidents. On April 30, Gov. Cuomo wrote a letter calling on President Barack Obama to prioritize federal actions to reduce risks of future train derailments.
Delays by the Federal Railroad Administration in updating standards to reflect the greatly increased traffic of potentially explosive Bakken crude oil all around the country puts people, communities, Lake Champlain and other waterways at risk. The administration needs to act before another disaster like what occurred in Lac Megantic occurs here or elsewhere. Train whistles echoing off the lake should elicit wistful thoughts of faraway places, not shudders of dread.
Lake Look is a monthly natural history column produced by the Lake Champlain Committee (LCC). Formed in 1963, LCC is the only bi-state organization solely dedicated to protecting Lake Champlain’s health and accessibility. LCC uses science-based advocacy, education, and collaborative action to protect and restore water quality, safeguard natural habitats, foster stewardship and ensure recreational access.