Tag Archives: Sightline Institute

NPR: In The Pacific Northwest, Oil Train Derailment Highlights Potential Dangers

Heard on All Things Considered
By Conrad Wilson, August 12, 2016 4:31 PM ET

The number of trains carrying oil along the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington could dramatically increase.

There’s a plan to ship more oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota to a proposed oil terminal in southwest Washington state.

An oil train derailment earlier this year has shown the potential danger faced by the region.



In the Northwest, the number of trains carrying oil along the Columbia River could dramatically increase, and that’s sharpened a debate over oil train safety in Washington state and Oregon. There’s a plan to ship more oil from the Bakken region to a proposed oil terminal in Washington. As Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, a recent derailment has shown the potential danger the area faces.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: On a Friday in early June, more than 40,000 gallons of Bakken crude spilled in a fiery oil train derailment that burned for 14 hours.

EMILY REED: It is an incredibly scary thing to have something like this happen so – and within our city limits, so close to our school.

WILSON: Emily Reed is the city council president in Mosier, Ore., the town where the derailment took place. About 500 people live in Mosier, and 100 of them were forced to evacuate when the oil train derailed. Reed points out the town’s deep in the Columbia River Gorge, a canyon with steep cliffs, where winds can reach 40 miles per hour during the summer.

REED: If the wind had been as it is today or more, we would have had a fire going up more than four of those cars, all the way through town and wiping out our town.

WILSON: Union Pacific was to blame for the derailment that caused the oil spill, according to a preliminary report by the Federal Railroad Administration. It says Union Pacific didn’t maintain its tracks properly. However, an inspector certified by that same federal agency checked the tracks and gave them the OK a little more than a month before the derailment.

JERRY OLIVER: It was unfortunate for the community.

WILSON: Jerry Oliver is a port commissioner in Vancouver, Wash., and a vocal supporter of what would be the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the country, known as the Vancouver Energy Project.

OLIVER: It’s also unfortunate because it gives a tremendous black eye to anything related to fossil fuels.

WILSON: If built, the terminal would more than double the number of mile-long oil trains traveling along the Columbia River, to about 46 trains per week. Serena Larkin is with the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that opposes the oil terminal. She says until Mosier, oil train derailments were the kind of thing that happened somewhere else.

SERENA LARKIN: Mosier proved that we’re not any different. We are just as vulnerable. We are facing the exact same risks from oil trains that everyone else in North America is facing right now.

WILSON: Despite low oil prices, proponents of the project say the terminal is needed to reduce foreign imports and move domestic oil. For now, it’s relying on oil trains because there aren’t enough pipelines to move oil from North Dakota to the West Coast. Larkin says Mosier’s a turning point in the debate surrounding the Vancouver oil terminal and one that will weigh heavily on whether the project gets permitted.

LARKIN: It showed what the Vancouver oil terminal is really asking Northwest communities to shoulder in risk.

DAN RILEY: I strongly believe that all accidents are preventable.

WILSON: Dan Riley is vice president of government affairs for Tesoro, an oil company behind the project. Since the derailment in Mosier, he says there has been more scrutiny.

RILEY: I think that the criticism is not of the project, but of the rail system.

WILSON: Reilly says Tesoro has also pledged to only allow tank cars with thicker shells and other safety features designed to withstand a derailment into the Vancouver facility. But that’s done little to ease the safety concerns of firefighters and environmental groups. Ultimately, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has the final say on whether the project gets approved. That decision could come later this year. Inslee’s acknowledged the risk oil trains pose. He says the Mosier derailment is among the things he’ll consider when determining whether or not he’ll permit the oil terminal. For NPR News, I’m Conrad Wilson in Vancouver, Wash.

Did a “Bomb” Train Full of Volatile Crude Oil Pass By Tuesday’s Seattle Mariners Game?

Repost from The Stranger, Seattle, WA

Did a “Bomb” Train Full of Volatile Crude Oil Pass By Tuesday’s Mariners Game?

By Sydney Brownstone, Apr 23, 2015 at 1:50 pm
This was taken at around 8:15 p.m. at Tuesday nights Mariners game.
This was taken at around 8:15 p.m. at Tuesday night’s Mariners game. Courtesy of David Perk

Maaaaaybe it wasn’t the thrill he was looking for.

A spectator at Tuesday night’s Mariners game caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a crude-oil unit train moving past Safeco Field.

The attendee took video and photos while taking a walk behind the scoreboard, but didn’t want to be credited for them. David Perk, a friend of the photographer’s who was also at the game, passed along the images on that person’s behalf. Perk, a volunteer with the Washington Environmental Council, went to the game because of the ticket special to honor local volunteering efforts.

Perk says he first spotted the train while driving to the game from Renton. “I was wondering if it was going to roll north while having our tailgate party on the side of the tracks,” Perk said. Nearly 14,000 people attended the game, according to Seattle Mariners spokesperson Rebecca Hale.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe wouldn’t confirm whether the train was carrying crude, but the Sightline Institute’s Eric de Place said that the train was “almost certainly a unit train of crude.” Unit trains often contain a hundred or more tank cars, and can measure as long as a mile. The train was also heading north, which means that it was likely full and heading for refineries near Anacortes or Ferndale.

Unit trains moving crude from the shale oil fields of North Dakota (also known as “bomb trains”) carry a unique risk of derailing and exploding. The US Department of Transportation has estimated that an average of 10 crude-oil trains will derail a year over the next two decades. The DOT has thus far failed to finalize safety rules for crude-by-rail, but did order a 40-mile-per-hour speed limit on unit trains through populated areas last week. On April 14, the Washington State House also passed an oil transportation safety bill sponsored by Representative Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle).

Much of downtown Seattle falls within the crude-oil route’s half-mile blast zone, including Safeco Field, which sits right next to the railroad. But railroads aren’t required to share crude-oil routes with the public. Earlier this month, Seattle’s new fire chief, Howard Scoggins, told reporters that a derailment in Seattle would “exhaust our resources and require assistance from communities around us.”

String of ‘Bomb Train’ Explosions in the US and Canada Casts Doubt On Proposed Safety Upgrades

Repost from VICE News

String of ‘Bomb Train’ Explosions in the US and Canada Casts Doubt On Proposed Safety Upgrades

By Peter Rugh, March 11, 2015 | 11:55 am

explosionOver the last half-decade, North American oil by rail transports have exploded. Literally.

Driven by oil booms in Alberta, Canada’s boreal forest and in the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota, the amount of oil hauled over the nation’s rail system has surged to more than a million barrels a day.

But the number of fiery derailments has also spiked. There were 38 derailments involving fires and ruptures on the rails in 2014, up from 20 in 2009, even as the total number of accidents declined by 21 percent over the same period.

US regulators are drawing up new rules governing crude by rail shipments that will likely be released this spring. But a fresh series of explosions on the tracks might prove their approach too limited.

“We keep seeing exploding bomb trains on different rail carriers, going different speeds, with different rail cars, with different kinds of oil,” said Eric De Place with the Sightline Institute, a non-profit environmental watchdog group. “The fundamentals here are that the whole enterprise is unsafe. I don’t know how much more clearly the universe could underscore that point.”

Last Saturday, first responders in Galena, Illinois battled flames from a five-car explosion near the Wisconsin border. Eight hundred miles away, in Gogama, Ontario, seven tanker cars caught fire — the second crude train to explode in the Canadian province since February 14th. On February 17th, in West Virginia, a 19-car crude explosion blackened the sky above the town of Mount Carbon. Each of these derailments — and others in Casselton, North Dakota and Lynchburg, Virginia — has left widespread destruction and environmental damage in their wake. In Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013 an oil train went off the rails, exploded, and killed 47 people.

‘The proposed rules are almost laughably inadequate.’

Last July, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it was preparing new rules governing crude shipments in order to address growing concern about the safety and environmental impact of the boom in oil by rail shipments. Publically at least, the announcement was met with applause by both the oil industry and railroads.

“Our safety goal is zero incidents,” Brian Straessle, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute (API) and a former aide to Congressman Tom Price, a Republican representing Georgia, told VICE News. “Reaching that goal will require meaningful improvements to safety that are guided by science and data as part of a comprehensive approach to better prevent, mitigate, and respond to accidents.”

“API supports upgrades to the tank car fleet beyond current designs,” Straessle added.

But the draft DOT regulations would only impact a specific type of oil, crude from the Bakken shale region of North Dakota. And they focus on retrofitting or phasing out older model DOT-111 cars from Bakken crude transports.

But, unlike previous derailments, which sparked DOTs drive for safety improvements, the trains that burst into flames in Ontario recently were carrying heavy tar sands bitumen, less flammable than Bakken crude — but flammable nonetheless. In its draft rules, the DOT estimates “about 23,000 cars will be transferred to Alberta tar sands service” as a result of the new regulations and it “expects no cars will be retired.” The Canadian government is also implementing crude by rail reforms that are expected to harmonize with those of the US.
In all four derailments since February 14th, as well as the wreck in Lynchburg, newer or retrofitted cars, touted by the industry as safer were involved. These cars, known as Casualty Prevention Circular-1232s (CPC-1232s) already meet one of the possible design specifications the DOT is considering mandating for Bakken transports.

In other words: the type of cars diminish the risk of explosion and rupture have proven to be inadequate.

The railroad industry previously began standardizing the CPC-1232 design, which can apply to a range of car models, voluntarily in 2011. The CPC-1232 standard allows for exposed valves on the bottom of the tankers that often get severed during derailments, spilling fuel, as has often been the case with legacy DOT-111s.

Additionally, the shell casing on older DOT-111s, a key factor in whether the cars will explode, is 7/16 of an inch thick; on CPC-1232s it is a sixteenth of an inch thicker. The DOT is considering another option: mandating 9/16-inch shells. The thicker the shell, however, the less oil fits in each tanker, cutting profits for shippers who have challenged this aspect of the rules proposal.

Still, the American Association of Railroads (AAR), which introduced the CPC-1232 standard, claims, like the API, it is open to reform.

“The freight rail industry has been calling for tougher tank car standards for years and wants all tank cars carrying crude oil, including the CPC-1232, to be upgraded by retrofitting or taken out of service,” AAR spokesman, Ed Greenberg, told VICE News. “AAR believes every tank car carrying crude oil today needs to be upgraded and made safer, and we support an aggressive retrofit or replacement program.”

Related: Video footage shows massive explosion after West Virginia ‘bomb train’ derailment

But De Place doesn’t think any of the DOT’s proposed regulations will do much good.

“The proposed rules are almost laughably inadequate,” he said. “If American lives weren’t at stake, I would take it as comic relief. What they are proposing are very modest tweaks to the existing system and a long phase-out period that will allow the industry to run even the most dangerous cars for years to come.”

Under the DOT’s current proposal, older DOT-111s carrying Bakken crude won’t be ordered off the rails until October 2017.

De Place insists there’s a simpler, safer solution. “The government should issue an emergency order suspending the transport of crude oil immediately,” he said. “Anything short of that is playing Russian Roulette.”

The DOT did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News.