Martinez Environmental Group: Do you like trains a lot?
By Guy Cooper, September 14, 2014
Hope you like trains a lot. (Kudos to the Fugs, 1965!)
I just did a presentation as part of the Martinez Environmental Group Community Forum held here in town Sept. 8. My focus was on some trends and projections for crude-by-rail (CBR) nationally, statewide and locally. Then it hit me that there were aspects and implications I had not fully appreciated.
Of course, the safety record doesn’t look good. A 2013 spike in CBR traffic nationally led to consequent spikes in accidents and spills.
In fact, more CBR was spilled in this country in 2013 than in the previous 40 years combined. The sheer volume shipped can mask what is actually happening. A projected 7.7 billion gallons of crude is expected to roll into our state annually by 2016. That makes a mockery of the rail industry’s oft touted 99.99 percent safety record, a record based on volume shipped.
Shipping that much volume into the state allows for the spilling or otherwise loss of over 766,000 gallons a year without even breaking a statistical sweat. You bring it, the accidents will come. The rail companies are actually having accidents about once a week now. Two locomotives derailed in Benicia Monday. Third derailment there in the last 10 months. Hey, stuff happens.
I did my walk in the Marina Park this morning. Saw two freight trains go by, one from the north, one from the south. The one from the south had five or six locomotives pulling about a hundred hopper cars. From my vantage, I couldn’t tell if they were loaded. The train easily spanned the entire Carquinez trestle. We’ve seen the same thing lately with 100-car trains of ethanol heading through downtown.
It struck me. Just how many trains do go through downtown Martinez on a given day, or at least take up room on the Union Pacific (UP) and BNSF rail corridors that bracket Martinez? The Amtrak guys at the station told me they have 42 trains a day.
Forty-two! That’s almost one every 30 minutes. All but two of those travel the UP rails to Sacramento through Benicia, Suisun and Davis via the Union Pacific tracks that will also carry most of the crude oil trains into the Bay Area. Add in the freight trains. Amtrak couldn’t tell me anything about them, said they’re unpredictable. Well, I saw two within the space of an hour.
Add in the projected oil train traffic. We do know that one unit train (100- cars) of Bakken crude travels the BNSF line from the east along the Highway 4 corridor, over the Muir trestle into Franklin Canyon every seven to 10 days. I don’t know what other trains use that route. If all of the regional refinery proposals are allowed, we could also see a unit train a day travel through downtown on its way to the Phillips 66 refinery in Santa Maria near San Luis Obispo. WesPac in Pittsburg wants a unit train a day. Valero in Benicia wants 100 cars per day. Add ‘em up and you’re looking at 20 trains, 2,000 cars, 60 million gallons a week impacting our region, kludging up the rails, slowing other freight and passenger traffic, not to mention complicating the mix with highly volatile and toxic cargoes.
Each unit train is over a mile long, weighs over 28 million pounds and carries about 3 million gallons of oil. Remember, for each one coming in, there has to be one going out. I think that’s one of Newton’s laws of motion, but I could be wrong.
Anyway, so double the number of unit trains: 40 a week by 2016.
Add in 294 AMTRAK trains per week, and a conservative estimate of 28 other freight trains a week (4/day). Total: 362 trains per week, each blowing its whistle three of four times at each crossing. Every 30 minutes.
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
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.
“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.
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.”
Citizens Risk Arrest to Halt Operations at Richmond Oil Train Terminal: Call on Air Quality Agency to Reverse Illegal Permit, Protect Public Health
By Eddie Scher, risingtidenorthamerica.org, September 4, 2014
[Richmond, CA] Today more than a dozen Bay Area citizens chained themselves to a gate at the Kinder Morgan rail terminal in Richmond to stop operations. The citizens risked arrest to protest mile-long oil trains that threaten the safety of area residents and are a massive new source of air and carbon pollution in the region.
Among the demonstrators were residents of Richmond, Rodeo, Martinez, and Benicia, all towns that currently see dangerous oil trains moving through residential areas. Earlier this year the regional air quality agency, known as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, changed an existing permit to allow oil trains at the rail facility. Demonstrators contend that the agency broke the law when it modified the existing permit without additional environmental and safety review.
On Friday the San Francisco Superior Court will hold a hearing on a lawsuit filed by groups challenging the legality of the permit change and asking for a halt to oil train operations at the facility.
“I work with Richmond residents who already struggle with cancer, asthma and other devastating health impacts of pollution. Now they are living with bomb-trains full of explosive Bakken crude oil driving through their neighborhoods. By allowing this to happen, BAAQMD is failing to protect us and choosing Kinder Morgan’s profits over our safety,” said Megan Zapanta, Asian Pacific Environmental Network Richmond Community Organizer.
“People in Richmond are angry that the Air District, who are supposed to protect us, instead has put our community at catastrophic risk along with all the uprail communities. This irresponsible behavior must be stopped NOW!” said Andres Soto, organizer with Communities for a Better Environment.
“It’s unacceptable and illegal that the Air District allowed Kinder Morgan to bring explosive Bakken oil by rail from North Dakota without going through the processes established by state law to protect air quality and the safety of families in Pittsburg, Martinez, Crockett, Rodeo, Benicia, and Richmond. We demand that all operations related to oil by rail at Kinder Morgan stop immediately,” says Pamela Arauz, on behalf of Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition.
“The law in the State of California requires public agencies like the Air District to inform the public of projects like the Kinder Morgan Bomb Train operation. Not only that, the law requires an environmental review and public input into the process of issuing permits. The Air District broke the law when they secretly approved this dangerous project,” stated Denny Larson of Global Community Monitor.
“As the Bay Area Air District and other government agencies are failing to protect the health and lives of communities from the reckless shipments of crude oil by rail, the people are taking action to protect our communities,” said Bradley Angel, Executive Director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice.
“The Air District took a reckless, illegal shortcut that puts our families at risk. We’ve seen what happens when one of these trains derails and catches fire, we can’t let that happen here,” said Ethan Buckner, US organizer with ForestEthics.
“Climate disruption is bearing down on us even faster because of the extreme extraction of tar sands and shale oil. With Bomb Trains carrying millions of gallons of that dangerous crude rolling on Bay Area rails, all of our lives are on the line. Instead of the alarming dead-end expansion of the fossil fuel industry we need a rapid transition to renewable energy now,” said Shoshana Wechsler of theSunflower Alliance.
“To be sure, we take the oil refineries’ contempt for fenceline communities for granted. But frankly, it was shocking to see how covertly BAAQMD threw our public health under the bus,” said Nancy Rieser, Co-founder, Crockett-Rodeo United to Defend the Environment (C.R.U.D.E.)