Railroads, Big Oil Move to Ease Fears Over Crude Shipments
By Daniel Potter, KQED Science | February 24, 2015
Facing growing apprehension among Californians, railroads and oil companies are trying to allay fears over the dangers of hauling crude oil into the state.
Tensions have been heightened by a spate of derailments, as well as a recently unearthed government report with some sobering projections for the potential cost to life and property from such incidents in coming years. Federal regulators are weighing stricter rules governing everything from modernized braking systems to new speed limits.
In a rare move Tuesday in Sacramento, officials with California’s two major railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF, held a media briefing explaining safety measures ranging from computerized stability controls to special foam for choking out fires.
At the California State Railroad Museum, Pat Brady, a hazardous materials manager for BNSF, showed off a newer model tank car with half-inch thick “head shields” – metal plates extending halfway up on either end. The car was also equipped with “skid protection,” Brady said, pointing to a nozzle underneath that’s designed to break away in a derailment, leaving the valve itself intact, to avert spills.
This tank car, the CPC-1232, is supposed to be safer and harder to puncture than the older DOT-111 version, but it’s facing skepticism after several exploded last week when a train hauling North Dakota crude through West Virginia derailed.
Industry officials at the Sacramento briefing were reluctant to comment about that incident, saying not all the facts are in yet, but several emphasized the importance of keeping trains from derailing to begin with, and claiming that more than 99.99 percent of such shipments arrive safely.
Both BNSF and Union Pacific said tracks used to haul crude through California undergo daily visual inspections, said Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt, as well as a battery of high-tech tests.
“We’re using lasers to measure track gauge and track profile to keep trains on tracks,” he said, and also “pushing ultrasonic waves into our rail to detect potential cracks early.”
Hunt says in a typical month, Union Pacific brings in 1,000 to 1,200 cars loaded with oil, a tiny fraction of the company’s in-state freight. BNSF said its oil haul is even less: about two trains a month. But some predict such shipments could soar in the near future.
Also represented at the briefing was Valero Energy, which is hoping to start bringing two fifty-car oil trains a day to its refinery in Benicia.
“Valero as a company has acquired over five thousand rail cars,” said Chris Howe, a health and safety manager at Valero’s Benicia facility. “We’re able to get a number of them committed to our project, so we will likely be using Valero cars of these newer designs.”
The industry’s shift away from the DOT-111 model is “a useful step,” says Patti Goldman, managing attorney with Earthjustice, who adds that the newer cars are still “not nearly safe enough.”
“What you need to do to prevent catastrophes when trains do leave the tracks is have far better tank cars to be able to prevent the leaks and explosions in the first place,” says Goldman.
Earthjustice is in a legal fight pushing for stronger oversight and regulation. Goldman charges that it’s taking a long time to fully phase out older models because the industry is more focused on growing fleets rapidly.
“That’s just inexcusable,” she says. “We don’t think they’re allowed to do that. We think they need to get these hazardous tank cars off the rails before they start increasing the amount of crude oil that’s going to be shipped on the rails.”
Repost from KQED Science [Editor: ExcellentMina Kim audio interview with Tony Bizjak below. New information on Union Pacific derailment frequency, bridge inspection and other issues. – RS]
As More Crude Oil Rolls In, a Push for Better Track Inspection
By Mina Kim and Molly Samuel | KQED Science | October 22, 2014
Shipments of crude oil by rail are expected to increase in the Bay Area and the rest of the state in the near future. BNSF Railways is already transporting crude oil into Richmond, including the kind of oil that exploded from a derailment and killed 47 people in a Quebec town last year.
In response to concerns about the risks of crude by rail, the state’s other large rail company, Union Pacific, began to boost its rail inspection program by dispatching vehicles with lasers that can find tiny track imperfections, as the Sacramento Bee reports:
The new cars will patrol the main mountain routes into the state, Union Pacific officials said. Northern California sites will include Donner Pass, the Feather River Canyon and grades outside Dunsmuir. The state has designated all those areas high hazards for derailments.
The Bee’s Tony Bizjack spoke with Mina Kim about the program, which began last month. Bizjack explained that Union Pacific is particularly worried about California’s mountain passes because they’re considered more high-hazard areas, “often because they’re curving, they’re on slopes, and they have to deal with more extreme weather,” he said.
Bizjak rode on one of the track inspection vehicles. He said they’re equipped with ultrasound to look into the rails to find weaknesses and lasers to measure variations in rail height and alignment.
In the last five years, Union Pacific has had about 180 derailments in California, Bizjack said. “Derailments are surprisingly frequent, but generally very minor,” he said. “Most of those derailments, however, the train cars ended up standing up, not falling over.”
About half of all derailments are caused by track problems, said Bizjack. Others are caused by human and equipments errors. “So tracks are important, that’s sort of the front-line of defense — PUC and FRA think — in reducing the chance these new crude oil shipments can derail, explode.”
Union Pacific is not yet bringing volatile Bakken crude to California. But there are plans in the works for Union Pacific to bring crude oil both to and through the Bay Area, Bizjak explains. A project at the Valero refinery in Benicia would bring two 50-car trains a day through Sacramento and along the I-80 corridor. Another proposal in Santa Maria, by Phillips 66, would bring trains through Sacramento, the East Bay, San Jose and down the coast.
“If you ask anybody in the Office of Emergency Services here in California, or first responders, fire departments, there is a real level of concern about the safety with more crude oil coming in,” Bizjak said.
Railroads say California lacks authority to impose safety rules on oil shipments
By Tony Bizjak and Curtis Tate, Oct. 8, 2014
The battle over crude oil trains in California intensified this week, reaching into the legal sphere with potential national repercussions.
The state’s two major railroad companies, Union Pacific and the BNSF Railway, went to federal court Tuesday to argue that neither California nor any other state can legally impose safety requirements on them because the federal government already does that.
The lawsuit came days after California Attorney General Kamala Harris joined other officials in challenging one crude-by-rail project, in the Bay Area city of Benicia. In a letter to Benicia officials, Harris said the city has failed to adequately analyze the potential environmental consequences of Valero Refining Company’s plan to ship two 50-car oil trains daily through Northern California to its Benicia refinery.
Those shipments would run through downtown Sacramento and other Valley cities.
The Valero project and similar plans by other oil companies prompted the state Legislature this summer to pass a law ordering railroad companies to submit an oil spill prevention and response plan to the state, and to provide proof to the state that they have enough money to cover oil-spill damages.
Railroads fired back this week, filing a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento. Their argument: Federal law pre-empts the state from imposing safety restrictions on the railroads.
The suit was filed by the two largest railroads in the Western United States, Union Pacific and BNSF Railway Co. The industry’s leading trade group, the Association of American Railroads, is listed as co-plaintiff.
The fight involves a long-standing friction point between railroads and U.S. states and cities. Railroads contend that local governments cannot place requirements or restrictions on freight travel because federal laws cover that ground.
The railroads have used the federal pre-emption argument to stop states from trying to impose speed limits on trains and ban certain types of shipments. In one notable case, railroads got the courts to overturn a Washington, D.C., law that attempted to ban trains carrying hazardous materials from using tracks within 2 miles of the U.S. Capitol.
“Federal law exempts this entire regime,” the railroads declared in the California lawsuit. Citing “a sweeping set of intricate federal statutes and regulations,” the lawsuit argues that allowing states to impose a “patchwork” of requirements on railroads essentially interferes with interstate commerce.
In a separate email statement Wednesday, BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent said, “The state gives the industry no choice but to challenge the enforcement of the new law so as to not inhibit the efficiencies and effectiveness of the freight rail industry and the flow of commerce.”
Officials at the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response, the state agency listed as the defendant in the case, declined comment Wednesday, saying the agency does not publicly discuss pending litigation. Harris’ office is listed as a co-defendant.
The U.S. Department of Transportation in July proposed a rule that would require railroads to have oil spill response plans for trains carrying large volumes of crude oil. But that proposal could be months away from becoming law.
National transportation law and safety experts say the onus may be on California to prove that it is not usurping federal law or impeding interstate commerce.
“The state has to prove it is tackling what is a local or statewide issue, that it is not incompatible (with federal law) and doesn’t unreasonably burden interstate commerce,” said Brigham McCown, an attorney and former head of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “That is a high bar.”
California might have an opening in a 2007 law Congress passed after the 9/11 Commission issued its recommendations. The 9/11 Act required rail companies to develop security plans and share them with state and local officials. The requirement was not limited to planning for a terrorist attack, but for any rail disaster, including derailments and spills involving hazardous materials.
“Those plans are required to be done and required to be shared,” said Denise Rucker Krepp, the former senior counsel on the House Homeland Security Committee, who wrote the provisions.
The Transportation Security Administration has not enforced the requirement, Krepp said, partly because of its focus on aviation security. But now that the railroads have taken California to court, Krepp said the state could use the 9/11 Act as leverage to get what it tried to get from the railroads through legislation.
“It’s never been tested like this,” Krepp said of the federal law.
It was unclear Wednesday whether the railroads also are challenging the section of the California law that imposes a 6.5-cent fee on oil companies for every barrel of crude that arrives in California on rail, or that is piped to refineries from inside the state. The resulting funds, estimated at $11 million in the first full year, will be allocated for oil spill prevention and preparation work, and for emergency cleanup costs. The efforts will be focused on spills that threaten waterways, and will allow officials to conduct response drills.
Crude-oil rail shipments have risen dramatically in the last few years. Those transports, many carrying an unusually flammable crude from North Dakota, have been involved in several spectacular explosions, including one that killed 47 residents of a Canadian town last year. Federal officials and cities along rail lines have been pushing for safety improvements. California officials have joined those efforts, saying they are concerned by estimates that six or more 100-car oil trains will soon be rolling through the state daily on the way to coastal refineries.
Harris, the state’s top law enforcement official, sent a letter to Benicia city planners challenging that city’s conclusion in an environmental impact report that the Valero rail shipment plan poses an insignificant threat of derailment. The report, she writes, “underestimates the probability of an accidental release from the project by considering only a fraction of the rail miles traveled when calculating the risk of a derailment.”
“These issues must be addressed and corrected before the City Council of Benicia takes action” on the project, Harris wrote.
Harris’ letter repeats earlier criticism leveled by the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response and state Public Utilities Commission.
The letter is one of hundreds Benicia has received in the past few months in response to the city’s initial environmental study. Benicia interim Community Development Director Dan Marks said the city and its consultants would review the comments and prepare responses to all of them, then bring those responses to the city Planning Commission for discussion at an as-yet undetermined date.
Under the Valero proposal, trains would carry about 1.4 million gallons of crude oil daily to the Benicia refinery from U.S. and possibly Canadian oil fields, where it would be turned into gasoline and diesel fuel. Valero officials have said they hope to win approval from the city of Benicia to build a crude-oil transfer station at the refinery by early next year, allowing them to replace more costly marine oil shipments with cheaper oil.
A representative for the attorney general declined comment when asked if Harris would consider suing Benicia to force more study of the project.
“We believe the letter speaks for itself,” spokesman Nicholas Pacilio said. “We expect it will be taken seriously.
Railroads sue California over oil train safety rules
Union Pacific, BNSF Railway argue federal law pre-empts state regulations
By Tony Burchyns, October 9, 2014
California’s two major railroad companies filed a lawsuit this week to argue that the state lacks authority to impose its own safety requirements on federally regulated crude oil train traffic.
The lawsuit follows a new state law imposing regulations on the transportation of crude oil by rail in California. Union Pacific and BNSF Railway filed the case Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento to argue that federal law pre-empts California and other states from enforcing such regulatory regimes.
“The new state law requires railroads to take a broad range of steps to prevent and respond to oil spills, on top of their myriad federal obligations concerning precisely the same subject matter,” the railroads argue. “UP, BNSF and other members of (the American Association of Railroads) will be barred from operating within California unless a California regulator approves oil spill prevention and response plans that they will have to create, pursuant to a panoply of California-specific requirements.”
The railroads also will be required to obtain a “certificate of financial responsibility” from the state, indicating they are able to cover damages resulting from an oil spill. Failure to comply with the new state rules will expose railroad employees to jail time and fines, according to the lawsuit.
The California Office of Spill Prevention and Response, which was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, has declined to comment on the pending litigation.
The state law was passed in June following a sharp rise in crude-by-rail shipments in California from 2012 to 2013 and several high-profile oil train derailments in other states as well as Canada. In the Bay Area, crude-by-rail projects in Benicia, Richmond, Pittsburg, Martinez and Stockton have drawn local attention to the prospect of mile-long oil trains snaking through neighborhoods, mountain passes and sensitive habitats such as the Suisun Marsh.
Last week, California Attorney General Kamala Harris sent a letter to Benicia challenging plans to ship 70,000 barrels of crude daily by train to the city’s Valero refinery. Valero is seeking city approval to build a rail terminal to receive two 50-car oil trains daily from Roseville. The train shipments would originate in North Dakota or possibly Canada.
Harris, the state’s top law enforcement officer, criticized the city for underestimating the project’s safety and environmental risks. The letter was among hundreds received by the city in response to its initial environmental impact report. City officials say they are in the process of responding to all of the comments, and plan to do so before the project’s next, yet-to-be-scheduled public hearing is held.