Tag Archives: Risk Assessment

Once in 111 years? Could be tomorrow…

Repost from The Vacaville Reporter
[Editor: The author convincingly makes the case that when it comes to oil trains, public safety is a roll of the dice.  He then suggests that the only way to win at crude oil craps is to buy insurance and prepare for the inevitable disaster(s).  In his next column, maybe Mr. Kimme will consider a statistically proven casino strategy: don’t play the game.  NOW is the time to say NO to big oil, and to promote, develop, plan for and build clean energy.  – RS]

The odds are, tanker safety needs to be discussed

By Vacaville Reporter columnist Ernest Kimme, 09/22/2014

Many people in Vacaville live in flood plains, and pay flood insurance. The city keeps the flood maps. They show the 50 year flood zones, 100 year flood zones, and 500 year flood zones.

People often believe that means that houses in a 50 year flood zone will flood once every 50 years. If you have a flood, then the next flood will be in 50 years. Sadly, this is incorrect.

Instead, every year, nature rolls a 50 sided dice. If the dice stops with “50” showing, your house gets flooded. If you are lucky, you could roll 100 times (once a year), and never see a “50”. But if you’re not lucky, you might get “50” twice in a row. Or three times in 10 years. Probability is a fickle mistress. You might know the odds, but you just never know what is going to happen each year.

So now let’s talk about train wrecks and oil fires.

The Valero Refinery in Benicia would like to import a lot of oil by train. The trains would start in Roseville, and travel 69 miles to the Benicia Refinery. Part of that journey would be in the Suisun Marsh. Several long trains of tanker cars would make the trip each day. So people have concerns.

Some bright mathematician calculated the odds of a derailment leading to a fire. Without going into the math (your welcome), he found that the odds of a train wreck and oil fire in Solano County were once in 111 years. So every year, the lords of chaos roll a 111 sided dice, and if it comes up “111,” then that year Solano County has a terrible oil fire on the railroad tracks. The fire might not happen for 200 years, or we could have 3 fires in 3 consecutive years. It’s all luck.

For comparison, Vacaville has about 6 to 8 house fires a year. The odds of one particular house — your house — burning are about 1 in 3,500. Take a dice with 3,500 sides you get the idea. Yet we still faithfully pay for fire insurance, and pay taxes for a fire department.

Now, go back and look at the chances of a train wreck, and the chances of a house fire. Did you notice that train wrecks are more likely than house fires?

But let’s not let our knickers get all twisted up — yet. Just like a house fire, oil tanker fires are not likely to happen. We should, however be prepared. We would like the fire department to be able to put them out quickly, if and when they happen.

That’s the rub. Oil fires do not quietly flicker out. They give off big clouds of toxic smoke, often with heavy metals and sulfuric acid in them.

Oil fires burn so hot that firefighters often have trouble getting close. And oil fires need special foams and equipment. Water just spreads it out and makes it worse.

So the obvious question is: Who pays for the extra training for the firefighters and the special equipment? The taxpayers? The refinery? The railroad?

Normally the taxpayers have to pay, and then file claims after the accident in an attempt to recover costs. Usually the railroads carry insurance in case of accidents, so it becomes lawyers arguing with lawyers. Makes you wonder: What if the county got insurance to cover their costs?

We can regret the need for oil and gasoline in our society, and we should make every effort to use less fossil fuel. But until that day, we need to safely transport oil and gasoline. With that in mind, Supervisor Linda Seifert is hosting a community discussion on the tanker trains and safety, Monday, Sept. 29, 6 to 8:30 p.m., in the Supervisor’s Chambers, 675 Texas St, Fairfield. For more information, call her office.

The author is a Vacaville resident and member of The Reporter editorial board.

Lynne Nittler of Davis, CA: Take Action!

Repost from The Davis Enterprise

Exercise the power of public comment

by Lynne Nittler, August 10, 2014
oil train
Oil tanker cars travel by rail through Davis on a recent evening. Valero oil refinery in Benicia wants to expand its oil shipments to 100 tank cars per day. Jean Jackman/Courtesy photo

The story of crude-by-rail in California is not a done deal. As new developments unfold almost daily in this remarkable drama, it is clear that public input can make a significant impact.

For example, last January, fierce community opposition — plus a letter from state Attorney General Kamala Harris urging further scrutiny on air quality and the risk of accidental spills — led city leaders in Pittsburg to reopen the public comment period on its draft environmental documents.

The WesPac Petroleum project had called for an average of 242,000 barrels of crude — the equivalent of 3.5 trains per day — to be unloaded daily and stored in 16 tanks before being piped to the five Bay Area refineries. Now, it appears WesPac may never reapply. An alert public can bring about change.

Valero in Benicia is a long way from giving up on the rail terminal that will allow it to import 100 tank cars of crude by rail daily, most likely from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and the Bakken Crude shale of North Dakota. These two extreme forms of crude — Bakken crude is highly volatile and proven explosive and tar sands bitumen is toxic and impossible to clean up in a spill (Kalamazoo spill, July 2010) — are already being processed in some Bay Area refineries.

The California Energy Commission predicts within two years that California will receive 25 percent of its crude by rail, mostly from these two extreme crudes that emergency workers currently are not prepared to deal with in the event of a spill or accident. For the Sacramento region, that will mean five to six trains of 100 cars per day by the end of 2016!

Your input now may make a significant difference. The draft environmental impact report for the Valero proposal is open for public review until Sept. 15. A printed copy is at the Stephens Branch Library, 315 E. 14th St. in Davis, and is available online at www.benindy.wpengine.com. Every letter submitted becomes part of the public record and must be addressed in the final EIR.

Frankly, the draft EIR focuses on impacts to Benicia, and just glances at uprail communities like Davis. But two 50-car trains coming across the Yolo Causeway and the protected Yolo Basin Wildlife Area; passing high-tech businesses along Second Street; rolling into town through residential neighborhoods, where the vibrations will be felt from each heavy car; following the unusual and therefore dangerous 10 mph crossover just before the train station; passing through the train station, putting the entire downtown within the blast zone; and skirting the edge of UC Davis, including the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts; puts many people at serious risk.

If you have concerns such as whether the tank cars are safe enough, whether the volatility of the Bakken crude should be reduced before it is loaded into tank cars, who is liable in the event of an accident, whether the trains will be equipped with positive train control to improve braking, how Valero plans to mitigate the increased air and noise pollution, how Valero can claim that accidents happen only once in 111 years, etc., then you can help.

While our city of Davis, Yolo County, Sacramento, Roseville, Fairfield, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and the Sierra Club Yolano Group are writing their own responses to the Valero draft EIR, letters from private citizens are equally powerful.

Public workshops are planned in August and September to help residents craft their letters. They workshops will provide background on the oil train situation, discuss the California Environmental Quality Act and EIR process and offer helpful resource materials. Participants will find topics, gather evidence, write their letters and then share drafts for feedback.

Workshops are planned from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Aug. 9; 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21; and 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7. All will take place in the Blanchard Room at the Stephens Branch Library, 315 E. 14th St. in Davis. The room is accessible to people with disabilities.

The draft EIR and mailing directions are posted at www.benindy.wpengine.com. For more information, contact me at lnittler@sbcgloball.net or 530-756-8110.

Bring a friend! Every letter adds to the impact!

— Lynne Nittler is a Davis resident.