Tag Archives: Dunsmuir CA

Dangerous Oil-by-Rail Is Here, but Railroad Bridge Inspectors Are Not

Repost from ALLGOV.com

Dangerous Oil-by-Rail Is Here, but Railroad Bridge Inspectors Are Not

By Ken Broder, September 18, 2014

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) estimates there are about 5,000 railroad bridges in California, but doesn’t really know for sure. They are privately owned and inspected and were off the public radar until oil companies started shipping dangerous crude by rail to California refineries in increasingly large quantities.

Governments are not ready to have volatile loads of cargo rolling through sensitive habitats across the state, much less through heavily-populated metropolitan areas. But help is on the way. In March, the CPUC requested funding (pdf) for seven inspectors to specifically handle oil-by-rail, and two of them would focus on bridges.

The Contra Costa Times reported last week that the two inspectors have not yet been hired, but when they are, they will be the only two inspectors checking out the bridges. They will be assisted in their task by the sole federal inspector assigned to the area―an area that includes 11 states.

One of their first jobs will be to find the bridges. There is no comprehensive list. Judging by some industry comments, there may be some reluctance on the part of rail owners to provide all the information the government might ask. Bridge consultant and former American Society of Civil Engineers President Andy Hermann told the Times that the companies kept bridge data secret for competitive reasons.

But not to worry. The owners already do a good job of maintaining the bridges because, in Hermann’s words, “There’s a very strong profit motive to keep the bridges open. Detours will cost them a fortune.” In other words, this would be a situation where a company does not make a risky decision based on short-term, bottom-line considerations that could adversely affect the well-being of people and the environment.

In a report (pdf) to lawmakers on rail safety last December, the CPUC called California’s rail bridges “a potential significant safety risk.” It said most of them “are old steel and timber structures, some over a hundred years old.” Big rail companies tout their safety programs but the report points out often these bridges are owned by small short line railroads “that may not be willing or able to acquire the amount of capital needed to repair or replace degrading bridges.”

That’s bad, but not AS bad when the rail shipments aren’t volatile oil fracked from North Dakota’s Bakken formation, loaded on old rail cars ill-equipped to handle their modern cargo. Federal regulations to upgrade the unsafe cars will probably take at least a few years to complete.

When safety advocates talk about the dangers of crude-by-rail, they invariably cite the derailment last July in Quebec that killed 47 people, burned down 50 buildings and unleashed a “river of burning oil” through sewers and basements. But the Times reached back to 1991 for arguably California’s worst train derailment, albeit sans crude oil.

A train in Dunsmuir, Siskiyou County, fell off a bridge and dumped 19,000 gallons of a concentrated herbicide into the Sacramento River. Fish and vegetation died 45 miles away. Some invertebrate species went extinct. Hundreds of people required medical treatment from exposure to the contamination.

Railroads are carrying 25 times more crude oil nationally than they were five years ago. Most oil in California is moved via pipeline or ship. In 2012, only 0.2% of the 598 million barrels of oil arrived by rail in California. But the California Energy Commission (CEC) has said it expects rail to account for a quarter of imports by 2016.

Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group, does not want safety measures to amble down the track years after the crude roars through. Its lawyers joined with the Sierra Club and ForestEthics to file a lawsuit in federal court last week to force a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) response to a July legal petition seeking a ban on the type of rail cars that derailed and exploded in Quebec.

A week ago, a San Francisco County Superior Court judge told Earthjustice and other environmental groups they couldn’t sue to halt deliveries of crude oil to a rail terminal in Richmond because the deliveries had been legally permitted by the state―without public notification―and the 180-day deadline to appeal had quietly passed.

Crude-by-rail: One federal inspector oversees all California’s railroad bridges, no state oversight

Repost from The Contra Costa Times
[Editor:  The issue of bridge safety is important here in Benicia for two reasons.  Locally, we understand that Valero’s proposed oil trains would roll PAST the refinery in order to back into the offloading racks, thus coming to a stop near enough to the Benicia-Martinez bridge that, in the event of an explosion, the bridge itself could be severely impacted if not destroyed.  Beyond Benicia, our little City’s decision would impact rail lines all the way from Alberta and North Dakota, including bridges of questionable security all along the way.  – RS]

Crude-by-rail: One federal inspector oversees all California’s railroad bridges, no state oversight

By Matthias Gafni, 09/12/2014
View of the underside of the Benicia-Martinez Railroad Drawbridge in Benicia, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
View of the underside of the Benicia-Martinez Railroad Drawbridge in Benicia, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

As concerns grow over aging rail infrastructure, earthquake readiness and a dramatic increase in crude oil shipments by train, state railroad regulators are scrambling to hire their first-ever railroad bridge inspectors — two of them.

Once they are hired, the California Public Utilities Commission plans to create a state railroad bridge inventory to determine which are most at risk. That’s right — neither the state nor federal government has a list of railroad bridges for California or the rest of the country. Until that happens, the safety of California’s thousands of railroad bridges — key conduits that carry people and hazardous materials over environmentally sensitive ecosystems and near urban areas — is left up to rail line owners and a single federal inspector who splits his time among 11 states.

An Amtrak train crosses the Benicia-Martinez Railroad Drawbridge in Benicia, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
An Amtrak train crosses the Benicia-Martinez Railroad Drawbridge in Benicia, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

“Two more inspectors is better than none, but it’s really a Band-Aid,” said Suma Peesapati, attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental group fighting the oil rail influx. “I think there should be no crude by rail over those bridges until there’s a comprehensive look at all of them.”

No California rail bridges have failed in recent memory, but the 6.0 earthquake that rattled the Napa area on Aug. 24 provided a reminder that California must monitor its aging rail infrastructure.

Following the quake, the Federal Railroad Administration worked with Caltrans to contact railroads within a 100-mile radius and ensure bridges and tracks were inspected for damage before resuming normal operations. The Napa Valley Wine Train, which was closed for two days after the quake, had its own private inspector go over the tracks and numerous bridges, including one traversing Highway 29. The inspector gave the green light to continue running Aug. 26.

Caltrans employs 120 inspectors and 80 specialty personnel to inspect the state’s public automobile highway bridges to ensure the integrity of the elevated structures, in comparison to the one federal inspector for all of California’s rail bridges, most of which are privately owned.

Those railroad bridges are inspected, maintained and regulated by company personnel, but watchdogs say that’s far from adequate.

In its annual Railroad Safety Activity Report to the state Legislature in November, the CPUC identified the state’s railroad bridges as a “potential significant rail safety risk.”

“There are many unknown questions regarding bridge integrity that need to be answered to ensure public safety,” the report found.

The Benicia-Martinez Rail Drawbridge, built in 1930 and tucked between the automobile spans, carries hazardous material shipments across the Carquinez Strait to East Bay refineries, along with 30 Amtrak Capitol Corridor passenger trains each weekday. The bridge is owned by Union Pacific and is safe, the company’s spokesman said.

“We regularly inspect all of our bridges in California,” said Union Pacific’s Aaron Hunt. “We perform necessary maintenance required to assure the safe use of our bridges. Bridges and culverts are a critical part of our 32,000-mile network.”

Union Pacific has spent more than $42 billion on infrastructure, Hunt said, not specifying what portion of that was devoted to bridges, including $4.1 billion scheduled for this year. “These are private investments, not taxpayer dollars,” he said.

However, the state report found many bridges are owned by smaller short-line railroads that “may not be willing or able to acquire the amount of capital needed to repair or replace degrading bridges.”

Crude by rail

Concern has grown about bridge safety and rail safety in general with the increase of crude oil shipments by rail. They’ve jumped 158 percent in California from just September to December 2013, according to the state energy commission.

This year, the CPUC created the Crude Oil Reconnaissance Team to monitor the oil-by-train boom to ensure federal and state safety laws are followed.

In June, federal rail chief Joseph Szabo spoke to an Indiana newspaper about the crude-by-rail boom: “The movement of this product is a game changer. We have to rethink everything we’ve done and known in the past about safety.”

In response to the increase and some deadly accidents, including a derailment last summer in Quebec, Canada, that killed 47 people, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed tank car safety upgrades.

As of now, about 100 rail cars of crude roll through populated areas of the East Bay each week along the BNSF line from Stockton to Kinder Morgan’s rail depot in Richmond. The route traverses the 1,690-foot-long, 80-foot-high Muir Trestle, above Alhambra Avenue in Martinez. The trestle was constructed in 1899 and rebuilt 30 years later. Those rail cars rumble through Antioch, Pittsburg, Bay Point, Martinez, and Hercules, said Contra Costa Hazardous Materials chief Randy Sawyer.


Based on total track miles and federal estimates of a bridge occurring every 1.25 miles of track, the CPUC estimates there are about 5,000 California railroad bridges.

Most are old steel and timber structures built more than 100 years ago, and “actual railroad bridge plans or records are either absent or unreliable,” the CPUC report found.

“It’s part of the infrastructure that’s dilapidated, not only in California, but across the country,” Peesapati said. “Bridges are really an example of the problem.”

American Society of Civil Engineers past President Andy Herrmann, a bridge consultant, said companies balk at releasing bridge data for competitive reasons, but he believes bridges are maintained safely.

“There’s a very strong profit motive to keep the bridges open,” Herrmann said. “Detours will cost them a fortune.”

However, the 2007 Government Accountability Office report also found that “Because bridge and tunnel work is costly, railroads typically make other investments to improve mobility first.”

Are they safe?

In 1991, a freight train traversing steep switchbacks in Dunsmuir, Siskiyou County, derailed, sending rail cars tumbling off a bridge and resulting in 19,000 gallons of metam sodium, a concentrated herbicide, leaking into the upper Sacramento River. The accident killed all vegetation, fish and other aquatic animals 45 miles downstream, rendering some invertebrate species extinct. Several hundred people exposed to the contaminated water required medical treatment in what’s still considered the worst inland ecological disaster in the state.

Although the accident was not caused by bridge failure, it led the railroad to build a derailment barrier on the Cantara Loop bridge to prevent it happening again. And the Federal Railroad Administration expressed concern about the condition of bridges generally in a wide-ranging review after the crash.

“The review was prompted by the agency’s perception that the bridge population was aging, traffic density and loads were increasing on many routes, and the consequences of a bridge failure could be catastrophic,” according to a report published in 1991, the same year as the crash.

From 1982 to 2008, records show there were 58 train accidents nationwide caused by the structural failure of a railroad bridge, causing nine injuries and about $26.5 million in damages.

State hires

As of July 2010, new federal rules require rail companies prepare bridge management programs — including annual inspections, maintenance inventories and more — that are made available to federal inspectors when asked. The Federal Railroad Administration can levy fines up to $100,000 for failure to comply.

Federal inspectors audit railroad bridge inspections done by the companies and personally perform observations of 225 to 250 bridges each year. Based on those CPUC calculations, it would take the California inspector 20 years to visit and observe all of the state’s estimated 5,000 bridges, if that was all he had to do. But in reality, it would take much longer because California’s inspector splits his time among 11 states, leaving the CPUC to conclude in its 2013 report that the feds “cannot provide adequate oversight.”

That shortfall prompted state regulators to hire their own bridge inspectors, and they have already designed a bridge evaluation form and experimented with performing inspections.

“Railroad bridges carry thousands of cars of hazardous materials and thousands of passengers daily,” said CPUC spokesman Christopher Chow. “The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has new, general bridge regulations … but employs only five inspectors for the entire U.S. The CPUC’s bridge inspectors will be able to augment the FRA’s efforts.”

Sacramento leaders: Risk of oil train explosions must be acknowledged

Repost from The Sacramento Bee

Sacramento leaders: Risk of oil train explosions needs to be acknowledged

By Tony Bizjak, Aug. 5, 2014
An oil train derailment and explosion in Quebec last July prompted Canadian officials to impose tougher safety regulations. | Paul Chiasson / AP/Canadian Press

Sacramento area leaders say the city of Benicia is failing to acknowledge the risks of explosions and fires that could happen if the Bay Area city approves Valero’s plan to run crude oil trains through Northern California to its refinery.

The accusation, in a draft letter released Tuesday by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, comes in response to a Benicia report that said twice-daily rail shipments of 70,000 barrels of crude will pose no significant threat to cities on the rail line, such as Roseville, Sacramento and Davis.

The Sacramento group is calling that finding “fundamentally flawed,” and points out that the federal government issued an emergency order in May saying new volatile crude oil shipments are an “imminent hazard” along rail lines.

“I don’t know how you can conclude there is not a significant hazard,” said Kirk Trost, an attorney for SACOG, a planning agency of the region’s six counties and 22 cities. “The (environmental report) never looks at the risk of fire and explosion in one of these situations.”

Trost said the letter has not yet been endorsed by the SACOG, but was written by SACOG staff in consultation with regional leaders.

It urges Benicia to redo its analysis and provide a clearer picture of the risks the project imposes on up-rail cities. It also says the project, proposed by Valero Refining Co., should not be approved without new funding to train firefighters to deal with oil spills and for rail safety improvements.

It also calls for limits on the amount of time crude oil tank cars are stopped or stored in cities. “Our view is they should not be stored in any of our communities along the line,” Trost said.

Valero, which receives most oil at its Benicia refinery via ship, plans to begin taking deliveries by train from various sites in North America, including potentially from the Bakken fields of North Dakota. Bakken trains have been involved in several recent explosive fires, including a derailment in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic that killed 47 residents. Federal officials said last month that studies show Bakken oil is more volatile than other crude oils. The oil industry disputes that assertion.

The Benicia report concluded that an oil spill between Roseville and Benicia can be expected to happen once every 111 years. It acknowledges “if a release in an urban area were to ignite and/or explode, depending on the specific circumstances, the release could result in property damage and/or injury and/or loss of life,” but doesn’t expand on that statement. Instead, it says rail transport is becoming safer.

The SACOG letter challenges the once-in-111-years figure, noting it was calculated using data from 2005 to 2009, and disregards a dramatic surge in crude oil rail spills and fires in the last two years. Benicia city planners did not respond to a Bee request for comment.

Benicia’s analysis stops at Roseville. Several local officials, including Plumas County supervisor Kevin Goss, say they want it to include likely routes to the north and east, including the Feather River Canyon and the Dunsmuir areas, both of which have been designated by the state as high-hazard areas for train derailments.

“I think it should be studied all the way out to where (the shipments) originate,” Goss said.

Benicia officials have said they did not study beyond Roseville because they do not know which route crude oil trains might take beyond that point.

Several attorneys, unassociated with the case, say state environmental law lays out what cities should study, but has gray areas.

Environmental law attorney Andrea Matarazzo, a partner with the Pioneer Law Group in Sacramento, says case law makes it clear that a city can’t draw a line around its project and study only local impacts. But she said the city can make a judgment call on where to stop, if it has a reasonable explanation.

Another environmental law attorney, Jim Moose, partner at Remy, Moose, Manley in Sacramento, said that CEQA does not require a city to look at the “Armageddon” or worst-case scenario, but cities are obligated to look at reasonably foreseeable impacts. “It seems to me a good EIR would lay out the consequences and not just say the probability of it, especially since the time frame in question is not all that long” from a legal perspective. “But it is a gray area of the law.”

SACOG attorney Trost said the draft letter will be reviewed by the SACOG board later this month. Benicia has set a Sept. 15 deadline for receiving comments and questions to its environmental analysis. Yolo County sent Benicia a similar complaint letter last month.

KQED: California Has Little Say Over Oil Train Safety

Repost from KQED Science
[Editor: Significant quotes: 1) by Alexia Rettalack of California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) – “Spills happen. When product moves, things happen.”  2) by Paul King, deputy directory for rail safety at the California Public Utilities Commission – “My view is it’s pretty undeniably bringing in extra risks to the state.  These trains explode. If that were to happen in a town, there’s no telling the damage.”    – RS]

California Has Little Say Over Oil Train Safety

Molly Samuel, KQED Science | July 21, 2014
A BNSF train with tank cars crosses a trestle in the Feather River Canyon in Northern California. (Courtesy of Jake Miille)
A BNSF train with tank cars crosses a trestle in the Feather River Canyon in Northern California. (Courtesy of Jake Miille)

The number of trains carrying crude oil across California is increasing rapidly, and two official reports say the state is not ready. Regulators are preparing, with funds for disaster response and more track inspectors, but they’re limited in how much they can do to make rail transport safer.

“My view is it’s pretty undeniably bringing in extra risks to the state,” said Paul King, deputy directory for rail safety at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

“These trains explode,” King said. “If that were to happen in a town, there’s no telling the damage. And of course we know what happened in little Lac-Mégantic.” That’s the town in Quebec where a train carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken formation derailed last July. The explosion killed 47 people.

Bakken crude is volatile. In the past year, trains transporting crude from the Bakken have also exploded in North Dakota, Virginia and Alabama.

Trains carrying Bakken crude traverse California, too, bringing the oil to refineries here. And while the CPUC regulates rail in California, the state can’t actually do much when it comes telling the railroads how they can operate. Almost all of those rules are up to the federal government.

‘Our Hands in California Are Tied’

The state can’t set speed limits on crude oil trains. It can’t tell railroads to choose less hazardous routes. It can’t tell oil companies not to bring trains carrying the volatile crude through cities. It can’t tell oil companies to ship that crude in stronger tank cars. It can’t require upgraded braking systems.

Neither can local governments, though the cities of Davis, Richmond and Berkeley have all passed resolutions expressing their opposition to the transport of crude oil by rail.

“I almost feel like our hands in California are tied, yet all these trains are going through our communities,” State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, a democrat from Santa Barbara, said at a hearing last month.

Trains carried nearly 6.3 million barrels of oil into California in 2013. That’s more than five times more than in 2012. According to the California Energy Commission, by 2016 that number could balloon to more than 100 million barrels.

That’s because there’s an oil boom in the middle part of the continent, and to get that crude from Alberta and North Dakota to California, oil companies have to use trains.

Firefighters douse blazes after in Lac-Megantic on July 6, 2013. (François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters douse blazes in Lac-Megantic on July 6, 2013. (François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)

Steps Towards Safer Shipping

There are ways to make the trains safer.

Most of the tank cars used to transport crude oil, including the volatile Bakken crude, are old, and can’t protect against explosions. After the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada required that the most dangerous of the cars — the same tank cars that carry as much as 82 percent of crude oil in the U.S. — be removed from service, and that the rest be retrofitted.

The U.S. is considering stricter tank car standards. Last week, the advocacy group Earthjustice sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, urging the agency to move faster by issuing an emergency order immediately banning the use of the unsafe cars.

But California can’t require any of this. The CPUC intends to urge the DOT to “move expeditiously” to update its tank car regulations. That, and other recommendations, are laid out in a recent report on crude-by-rail safety in the state. The state wants the feds to require that there be newer braking technology on oil trains and a GPS-based system that prevents accidents on oil train routes. According to King, the CPUC will submit those recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration soon.

The railroads have already adopted some voluntary safety measures, including lower speed limits and increased track inspections. And Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, the company that is currently transporting large amounts of Bakken crude in California, is asking railcar manufacturers to submit bids to build 5,000 safer cars. (The railroads typically don’t own the cars used to ship material; the oil companies themselves either own or lease them.)

The CPUC has done one of the main things it can: hire more railroad safety inspectors. The CPUC keeps a list of the most hazardous sections of track, and according to a recent report, the most frequent cause of derailments at those sites are track problems. The new state budget adds seven positions, bringing the CPUC’s inspection staff to 38. CPUC staff checks all the tracks in California once a year and, going forward, will check the tracks on Bakken oil train routes twice a year

A Past Disaster

California once tried to introduce stricter railroad regulations.

In July, 1991, a train derailed in Northern California at a bend in the track where it crosses the Upper Sacramento River, near the town of Dunsmuir. It spilled 19,000 gallons of a pesticide called metam sodium into the river.

“It killed everything down to the bacteria,” said Mark Stopher, who was hired by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to assess the damage to the river.

The poison killed more than a million fish, and every insect and plant in the river for 40 miles. “Nobody’s ever seen anything like that before,” he said. In video from the time, you can see fish struggling to escape the river and get into tributaries. Stopher said they all died.

“It was kind of a blow to the heart to lose the river,” said Phil Dietrich, executive director of a conservation group called River Exchange.

The Upper Sacramento had been a popular fishing destination. So when the fish were gone, the tourists, and their money, disappeared too.

But it was a pulse of poison; metam sodium doesn’t linger. A few years later, the fish were back. The tourists are back, too. It could have been worse, if what spilled had been a substance that lasts in the environment for a longer time. Oil, for instance.

After the accident, the CPUC tried to require stronger track at Cantara Loop, to keep it from happening again.

“We were trying to adopt regulations where there were none,” said King. But they couldn’t. The railroad sued the CPUC, and eventually the court sided with the railroad, reinforcing the Federal Railroad Administration’s jurisdiction. There is a large rail in place on the bridge now, to help keep trains from derailing into the river. According to the CPUC, there have been four derailments in the area since 2009.

“Our role is limited,” King said. “Our role is to ensure that the regulations that the federal government has in place are followed.”

Beefing Up Clean-Up 

Even if the the state can’t do all it wants to keep an accident from happening, it can prepare to respond to one.

In June, dozens of fire fighters, public health experts and Red Cross volunteers gathered near Cantara Loop to run a drill. The scenario was that an oil train had collided with an illegal marijuana grower’s truck at the site of the ’91 spill. The truck wrecked, and the train derailed and spilled oil into the river. 

Firefighters pulled the casualties (volunteers marked with paint) away from the scene, a helicopter brought tools to treat people who’d been doused in dangerous chemicals and a team deployed a drone to get a view of the (largely imaginary) disaster scene from above.

“We want to make sure California’s prepared to respond,” said Alexia Rettalack of California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR). “Spills happen. When product moves, things happen.”

OSPR got more money in this year’s budget, so that it can prepare for inland oil spills. Until now, the agency focused only on marine accidents. The state Office of Emergency Services is also looking for ways to better prepare emergency responders, many of whom are volunteers, for an oil train explosion. And state lawmakers are considering a couple of crude-by-rail bills that would improve emergency responses.

Dietrich emphasizes that what happened in Dunsmuir in 1991 was a rare event, and yet, the memory lingers.

“It comes down to we care about our river and about our towns,” he said. “And we hope that the agencies and the railroad are on top of it.”