Tag Archives: Department of Transportation

Crude oil rides Pa. rails: Should you be worried? (Answers to 12 basic questions)

Repost from The Pocono Record

Crude oil rides Pa. rails: Should you be worried?

Top Photo
A warning placard on a tank car carrying crude oil. | Associated Press
By NATASHA KHAN, PublicSource, July 13, 2014

More trains carrying crude oil to East Coast refineries mean a greater risk of accidents. Derailments in Pennsylvania and throughout the country are a signal to some that an accident could be disastrous.

Why is more crude oil moving through Pennsylvania?

North America is now the biggest producer of crude oil in the world, partly as a result of fracking in North Dakota and other Western states. Without pipelines to move the oil, much of it has been pushed onto the rails. In 2013, U.S. railroads carried more than 40 times what they carried in 2008. Refineries processing much of the crude from the Bakken formation in the West are in the Philadelphia area.

Are these trains dangerous?

As crude-by-rail traffic increased, so did its accidents. Some lawmakers and public safety groups are concerned that as production surges, people near railroad tracks are exposed to more danger. And some believe the crude boom has outpaced the necessary regulations to ensure safety.

There have been at least 12 significant derailments involving crude since May 2013 in North America. Some involved explosions, evacuations, environmental damage and injuries. The most devastating was in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013, when 47 people died after a train carrying crude exploded. Since January, Pennsylvania has had derailments involving crude in Philadelphia, Vandergrift and McKeesport. There were no injuries in any of the accidents.

How much crude oil do these trains carry?

Right now Norfolk Southern and CSX, the major railroads in the state, move as many as eight trains of crude oil a day combined through the state.

Dubbed “virtual pipelines,” these trains can have more than 100 tank cars and can carry millions of gallons of crude.

Is Bakken crude more volatile than other types of oil?

North Dakota Bakken crude is potentially more volatile, corrosive and flammable than other kinds of crude oil. Investigations found that the Bakken crude that exploded in Quebec was classified as a less dangerous type of oil. In February, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring testing of all Bakken crude to determine its explosive nature.

Are other types of crude oil dangerous?

Other types of crude from the U.S. and Canada also could pose a threat. All crude oil is flammable and can cause environmental damage, Christopher Hart, acting National Transportation Safety Board Chairman, told the Associated Press in June.

What’s wrong with the rail cars?

Sometimes referred to as the “Ford Pinto of railcars,” the DOT-111 tank cars used to ship crude have been known to be a safety hazard for decades, according to federal safety investigators. Designed in the 1960s, they are prone to puncture and “catastrophic loss of hazardous materials” when trains derail, according to the NTSB.

The derailments have caused an outcry by state and federal officials and safety groups demanding that the cars be taken off the tracks. Canada has already ordered railroads to stop using them by 2017, but U.S. regulators have been slow to act. The U.S. DOT did advise railroads in May to stop using the cars to carry crude oil. The White House is reviewing new standards for tank cars, but it could take months before rules are in place.

How are trains carrying crude oil regulated?

Two federal entities regulate railroads carrying crude: The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The FRA has about 400 inspectors who sometimes work with state inspectors. In Pennsylvania, the state’s Public Utility Commission does spot inspections of tracks and rail equipment.

Emergency planning is largely left up to counties. A state agency oversees 67 Local Emergency Planning Committees, which can request general information from railroads about hazardous materials coming through their counties. That information is not public.

Can you find out when crude oil trains come through your neighborhood?

Officially, no. Railroads are not required to share information about hazardous materials under federal law. Norfolk Southern and CSX, for example, said they don’t give out that information, citing possible security incidents and competition.

In May, the DOT said it no longer viewed information on crude oil from the Bakken as security sensitive. The agency told railroads with trains carrying more than 1 million barrels of Bakken crude to give the information to states. At least six states, including Washington, California and Virginia, made the information available. Pennsylvania didn’t. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency refused to release the information to PublicSource. The agency denied our Right-to-Know request, calling the information “confidential” and “proprietary.”

Bakken and other crude oils are believed to be shipped through Pittsburgh and other Pennsylvania cities on a regular basis on their way to Philadelphia refineries. A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission told PublicSource that Bakken crude is shipped through Pittsburgh.

What has been done to improve safety?

U.S. regulators asked railroads to comply with a number of voluntary actions. The railroads agreed to slow crude trains to no more than 40 mph in high-risk urban areas. (However, a train that derailed in Lynchburg, Va., in April was traveling at just 24 mph.)

Recent proposed rules for crude oil, including new standards for tank cars, drew comments from the public representing more than 100,000 people.

In March, CSX agreed to give PEMA access to its real-time monitoring system that tracks crude’s movement through the state. Cory Angell, the agency’s spokesman, said it is working with Norfolk Southern on a similar agreement.

Are first responders prepared for a significant derailment in Pennsylvania?

Daniel Boyles, the emergency services coordinator for Blair County, told PublicSource he thinks railroads are doing everything in their power to prevent accidents. However, he said, first responders need more training. Trains carrying Bakken crude roll through his county twice a week, he said.

Emergency officials in Beaver, Allegheny and Dauphin counties said that awareness has increased and railroads have given emergency responders more training.

A PEMA spokesman said the state is prepared in the case of a major derailment. He added that Pennsylvania will soon use a DOT grant to train county hazmat teams and first responders.

Who doesn’t think first responders are prepared?

“No community is prepared for a worst-case event,” Deborah Hersman, former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told a Senate subcommittee in April.

Under voluntary safety measures effective July 1, railroads will contribute $5 million for training for emergency responders. And they will develop a list of emergency-response resources in case of a derailment.

But federal safety officials have questioned whether voluntary actions are enough. Currently, railroads don’t have to provide comprehensive emergency plans for the crude oil being transported. That’s what’s needed, Hersman said.

In a Jan. 23 letter to federal regulators, she said that without comprehensive crude oil response plans “(rail) carriers have effectively placed the burden of remediating the environmental consequences of an accident on local communities along their routes.”

Which officials are talking about this in Pennsylvania?

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., endorsed a bill he said would boost safety. The bill would include $3 million for track inspections and hire 20 new inspectors.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter backed a proposal to charge a federal freight fee to crude-oil producers and industrial consumers. The money would be used to improve tracks.

Christina Simeone, director of PennFuture’s energy center, said other states have shown leadership on the issue — but not Pennsylvania.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo commissioned a safety report for his state. The report laid out actions the state should take. Minnesota lawmakers allocated $6.4 million for more inspectors, specialized training for first responders and fixes for highway-rail grade crossings along crude routes.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett has been silent about the safety issue, said Simeone, who commented that there is interest in “minimizing the issue” because of concerns about the refinery business in Philadelphia and gasoline prices in the region.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has not been part of the conversation. In a recent meeting with PublicSource, Peduto said that he is “aware of the reality of what is coming through.” In the case of an accident, Pittsburgh could call on the PA Region 13 Task Force, he said. The task force is an initiative that allows counties to pull resources from the entire region in case of an emergency.

Feds: Vandergrift’s 10,000-gallon oil spill among nation’s worst in recent years

Repost from TribLive.com, Pittsburgh, PA
[Editor: This recent update about the February derailment and spill in Vandergrift, PA was sent to me by a Benicia Independent reader who grew up in Vandergrift.  She reports, “Here is a recent article citing the Vandergrift spill was actually 10,000 gallons of crude oil (way above initial estimates and reports) and has been dubbed ‘among the nation’s worst in recent years.’  Norfolk Southern is sweeping this under the rug. Please help to expose this catastrophe for what it is. I have asked them repeatedly to please help fund an emergency evacuation plan for my hometown of East Vandergrift, PA that has an emergency preparedness budget of $100 per year.  Norfolk Southern now refuses to answer or acknowledge my emails.”  – RS]

Vandergrift’s 10,000-gallon oil spill among nation’s worst in recent years

By Mary Ann Thomas | May 29, 2014
The railroad tracks next to the MSI Corp. building in Vandergrift where a train derailed in February as seen on Wednesday, May 21, 2014.  Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
The railroad tracks next to the MSI Corp. building in Vandergrift where a train derailed in February as seen on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch

The federal government recently ranked the train derailment in Vandergrift in February that spilled thousands of gallons of crude oil as one of the 14 worst spills over the past eight years nationwide.

Additionally, preliminary estimates of the spillage were woefully short as government records now show that close to 10,000 gallons of heavy crude oil was released — twice the amount initially reported.

The amounts of crude oil transported these days and the danger in doing so have been increasing dramatically. Of the greatest concern is Bakken shale crude, which can be explosive.

Last July, a runaway train crash in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, involving Bakken oil, incinerated much of the downtown, killing 47 people.

The train in which 21 railroad cars derailed in Vandergrift was carrying a far less volatile form of crude.

The U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration determined the Vandergrift derailment to be the 14th most significant involving crude oil or ethanol in the past eight years. The most recent seven major derailments occurred within the past 11 months, and all involved crude oil.

Although no one was injured and there were no explosions in Vandergrift, the safety issues are the same ones currently being debated by the federal government, industry and activists:

  • The three railroad cars that released heavy crude oil and butane in Vandergrift were of the controversial variety known as DOT-111, according to Norfolk Southern. The railroad did not own those tankers, according to a spokesman. Critics dub these old-style tankers as flimsy as soda cans.
    The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an advisory urging industry to voluntarily use sturdier tankers for Bakken crude oil transportation.
  • The federal government issued an emergency order in early May requiring railroads to alert state emergency agencies about large Bakken crude shipments traveling through local communities. Shipping of crude has become widespread: In 2008, major rail companies hauled about 4,500 tanker carloads of crude, according to the Washington-based Association of American Railroads.
    Because of skyrocketing petroleum production in the Dakotas and Canada, the group estimated that trains transported more than 400,000 tanker cars of oil last year, many of them crossing Western Pennsylvania to reach refineries farther east.
  • Environmentalists as well as industry experts complain that the federal government is not doing enough quickly enough to increase safety.

The Vandergrift derailment

In the Vandergrift derailment, 21 of the 130 railroad cars jumped the track just before 8 a.m. on Feb. 13 in an area between the Kiski River and the Sherman Avenue neighborhood.

One of the derailed tanker cars slammed into a business and three others broke open, leaking thousands of gallons of oil. An undisclosed amount of contaminated soil had to be removed from the site, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

However, major damage was averted. The crude oil was not of the Bakken variety and not easily combustible. The spillage didn’t foul the nearby Kiski River. Residents did not have to be evacuated. The town was spared.

Final reports on the cleanup from DEP and the cause of the derailment are expected to be released within the month.

“We had a lot of things in our favor that day,” said Dan Stevens, spokesman for Westmoreland County Emergency Management.

“We had the wind blowing in a direction that was not affecting homes and it was 17 degrees,” he said.

The cold weather thickened the crude oil, further slowing any complications from the oil.

“If it would have been July 4, things could have been different,” he said.

Initial estimates shortly after the derailment, originally pegged that spillage at more than 1,000 gallons. As the day went on, that figure jumped to 4,500 gallons.

But the figure of almost 10,000 gallons was not released until it was referenced in a report earlier this year from the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Norfolk Southern, which provided the estimates, did the best that it could at the time, according to Norfolk Southern spokesman David Pidgeon.

“When you are dealing with hazardous materials, you don’t just rush in,” he said. The tanker cars don’t have windows, and emergency responders don’t easily know how much exactly had been discharged.

“It takes a long time to unload material from derailed cars,” he said. And when responders can assess all of the derailed cars, that’s when the railroad is better able to calculate the spillage, he said.

John Poister, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, noted that by the time a more accurate figure for the spillage was available, there weren’t follow-up media reports.

Future protection

Although, the federal Department of Transportation issued a voluntary request for shippers to use sturdier tankers than the DOT-111, many are not satisfied.

Even some railroads aren’t satisfied.

The tank car safety requirements are set by two agencies, the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Association of American Railroads Tank Car Committee.

“That committee has for many years pushed for stricter standards for cars than those set by PHMSA,” said Pidgeon.

Last November, the Association of American Railroads urged U.S. Department of Transportation’s hazmat administration to increase federal tank car safety by requiring that all tank cars used to transport flammable liquids be built to a higher standard.

It also is calling for all existing cars to be retrofitted to this higher standard or phased out of flammable service, according to the Association of American Railroads website.

But the fear of explosion shouldn’t be the only incentive, according to activists.

“We’ve seen the spills happen with these kinds of rail cars,” said Joanne Kilgour, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club.

“The spill in Vandergrift – 10,000 gallon is still significant,” she said.

“Even though there wasn’t an explosion, it shouldn’t have required an explosion and the loss of the life to retire outdated rail cars,” she said.

The recent requirement for notification of the shipping of Bakken crude is good for awareness but it isn’t going to change much, according to Stevens.

“If a train derails, it derails. What are you going to do? It doesn’t matter what is hauling,” Stevens said. “At the county level, our guys prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

Vermont: catastrophic risk to Lake Champlain

Repost from Lake Look, a publication of Lake Champlain Committee
[Editor: An excellent and thorough look at crude oil train derailment risks in and around Lake Champlain.  – RS]

Rail transport of oil poses risk to Lake Champlain

By Lake Champlain Committee Staff Scientist Mike Winslow   |  April, 2014
An oil train rolls south along the shores of Lake Champlain. Photo by Frank Jolin

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.

Washington State: federal emergency order not enough

Repost from Seattle Weekly News

Emergency Order Requires Railroads to Report Bakken Oil, but Is It Enough?

By Jerry Cornfield Thu., May 29 2014

By the end of next week, Washington will learn how often tank cars of oil siphoned from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale are getting shipped by rail through the state.

An emergency order from the U.S. Transportation Department requires railroads to tell the state how many trains carrying this highly flammable varietal of black gold are expected to travel through Washington each week, and on which routes.

Railroads are not required to reveal exactly what days and times the trains are coming or how much crude oil is getting transported.

Community leaders, emergency responders and some politicians say that’s the information they really need to be prepared for a derailment, spill or other type of accident.

They’re aware of oil train derailments in Virginia in April, in Alabama in November; and in Quebec last July, where 47 people died.

They know the chances of an accident are increasing as rail shipments of all types of crude oil multiply in Washington. The state Department of Ecology estimates it went from zero barrels in 2011 to nearly 17 million barrels—roughly 714 million gallons—in 2013.

But rather than criticize the order as inadequate, these leaders cite the federal action as a step forward.

“We’re all kind of worried about (Bakken crude) because it is much more flammable than regular crude oil. We have been asking for more information,” said Brad Reading, assistant chief of Snohomish County Fire District 1 and chairman of the countywide Special Operations Policy Board which handles planning for hazardous materials incidents. “This is certainly a step forward.”

Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said he understood the federal change “wasn’t overwhelming” in its scope when it was announced in early May

“From the perspective of public safety, the greater the detail the better, so any movement in that direction is good,” he said.

The rules, which kick in June 6 and apply to all 50 states, cover only shipments of at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude. That sounds like a lot, except when you consider that one tank car holds about 30,000 gallons of crude oil, and oil trains commonly have 100 or more cars hitched together.

Railroads must give the State Emergency Response Commission an estimate of how many trains will run through each county each week. The commission will notify the counties.

After railroads provide the information next week, they won’t need to contact the state again unless the number of trains carrying Bakken oil increases or decreases by 25 percent or more.

Refiners and railroads aren’t enamored with the notification directive. They worry it could increase the risk of sabotage and encourage daring activists to try to block trains through protests.

They’d prefer not to see the information publicized. State emergency management officials plan to post it online but on Tuesday were checking to find out if they are barred from doing so.

And the federal rules don’t deal with the safety of the rail cars in which the Bakken is shipped. That’s a separate conversation going on in Washington, D.C. where the Obama Administration and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are likely to impose tougher standards for rail car construction.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chairman of the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications committee, said the new notification rule is “a piece of the puzzle” but tank car safety is critically important and needs addressing sooner than later.

He’s planning to hold a public hearing on oil trains June 17 in Spokane.

“State lawmakers must continue to pressure the federal government to take stronger action,” he said when the order came out May 7. “It is what communities throughout Washington deserve and what we didn’t get from our federal leaders today.”

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, runs regularly at www.heraldnet.com .