Category Archives: Bridge safety

LA TIMES: Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

Repost from the Los Angeles Times
[Editor: This is an incredibly entertaining as well as informative article. Recommended reading!  – RS]

Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

By Robin Abcarian, September 24, 2016 2:25PM

latimes_abcarianThere were a couple of light moments Thursday at the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission’s interminable, inconclusive public hearing about whether it should allow the fossil fuel giant Phillips 66 to send crude-oil trains across California to its Santa Maria Refinery.

A local named Gary, one of only four citizens to express support for the project, took the microphone and announced, “Anybody opposed to something because it’s dangerous is my definition of a coward.” As he walked away, the audience, packed with oil train opponents, howled.

“My name is Sherry Lewis,” said the next speaker, “and I come from Cowards Anonymous.”

After several hearings, reams of public comment and a few concessions by Phillips 66, commissioners were finally supposed to put the matter to a vote this week.

Would they approve the construction of a new rail spur and oil transfer operation that would give Phillips the ability to send three new crude-oil trains through California each week, or would they defy their staff, who recommended denial because the project would have significant negative effects, particularly to air quality and sensitive habitats?

Would they disregard their pleading constituents, and the letters that have poured in from cities, teachers and boards of supervisors from San Francisco to Los Angeles asking commissioners to deny the project because those mile-long oil trains bring increased risk to every California community along Union Pacific tracks?

(Not to belabor the point, but if you live, work or study within half a mile of those tracks, you’re in what is known, for emergency planning purposes, as the “blast zone.” Even the mayor of nearby Paso Robles, who has offered lukewarm support for the project, once referred to them as “bomb trains.”)

Last spring, three of five commissioners indicated they were leaning toward approval. But one of them, a local realtor named Jim Irving, now appears to be on the fence.

The regulatory issues around oil trains are complex and somewhat maddening. Local and state governments, for example, have no say over what is carried on railroad tracks, because the federal government regulates interstate commerce. Think of the chaos if individual cities tried to impose rules on railroads.

Even though cities and counties have no control over railroads, they still want assurances that tracks and bridges are safe for the heavy, mile-long trains that carry highly flammable crude oil. We all do, don’t we?

Thursday, Irving asked about the Stenner Creek Trestle, a picturesque, 85-foot-high steel railroad bridge just north of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus that was built in 1894.

Could Union Pacific reassure the county that the bridge is sound enough to carry those heavy tanker cars? As recently as June, a slow-moving Union Pacific oil train derailed near an elementary school and a water treatment plant on the Columbia River Gorge in Mosier, Ore. That derailment has weighed heavily on people’s minds around here.

“We tried to request documentation from Union Pacific related to the stability of bridges,” county planner Ryan Hostetter told Irving, “and all we got was a form with a checked box that they had inspected.”

“That’s kind of appalling,” said Irving.


These are not idle questions, and they are being faced by communities all over the country.

As my colleague Ralph Vartabedian has reported, some of the nation’s top safety experts believe “the government has misjudged the risk posed by the growing number of crude-oil trains.”

The Mosier train derailment was caused by failing bolts that allowed the tracks to separate. This was particularly worrisome because the tracks had been inspected the previous week.

“For me, that was a game changer,” said Benicia City Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “I just don’t think the rail industry has caught up with safety standards.”

On Tuesday, Strawbridge and her colleagues on the Benicia City Council voted 5-0 to deny a project very much like the one under consideration in San Luis Obispo County. This one was proposed by energy behemoth Valero, which owns a refinery in Benicia.

Unlike Phillips’ Santa Maria Refinery, which employs only 120 people full time, Valero is Benicia’s largest employer. The refinery provides nearly 25% of the city’s annual $31 million budget. It has been a good neighbor, said Strawbridge, and charitable.

But she and her colleagues could not put their town at risk. After four years of debate, and a last-minute declaration by the federal Surface Transportation Board that oil companies cannot claim they are exempt from local regulations just because they use the railroads, the council said no to oil trains.

“I’ve gotten a lot of hugs on the street,” Strawbridge told me Friday.

They are well deserved.


Next month, the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission is scheduled, finally, to vote on this thing. After that, the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors will weigh in.

The wild card seems to be the board’s one open seat, in District 1, which comprises towns in the more conservative north side of the county. That supervisor has often functioned as a swing vote on the board. Two conservatives are vying for the seat, the aforementioned mayor of Paso Robles, Steve Martin, and John Peschong, a well-known Republican operative whose firm, Meridian Pacific Inc., received $262,000 from Phillips 66 in 2015, according to the oil company’s website.

Maybe the leaders of San Luis Obispo County will look north to the tiny city of Benicia for inspiration. That town, after all, had far more at stake.

They have a chance to do the right thing, not just for their county, but for all of California.

LATEST DERAILMENT: 26 coal cars derail, 5 end up in creek north of Fort Worth TX

Repost from Fox4, Fort Worth TX
[Editor: See also for more video and images.  – RS]

Train derailment causes major delays north of Fort Worth

By: Josiah Sage, Aug 21 2016 07:50PM CDT, updated Aug 22 2016 08:59AM CDT

Crewmembers believe a bridge failure caused more than 26 rail cars on a Union Pacific freight train to derail north of Fort Worth Sunday night.

It happened around 6 p.m. as the train was traveling over a bridge near Highway 377 in Roanoke. No one was hurt, but five of the train cars ended up in Denton Creek.

Union Pacific said the train was carrying coal, so nothing hazardous spilled into the creek. But it will still take some time to clean up the mess.

“There’s a lot of work that’s been done, a lot of work that’s been done since overnight. When I went on scene just moments ago you could see the big construction equipment tearing apart the rail cars. I guess instead of lifting and removing them they just crushed them and they are in pieces,” said Det. Sandy Pettigrew with the Roanoke Police Department.

The derailment is still causing some traffic problems on Hwy. 377 between FM 1171 and Bobcat Boulevard. The highway is expected to be closed most of the day and that will likely affect traffic heading to the nearby Byron Nelson High School.

Petition: Ban Oil Trains For Good

Repost from Huffington Post

Ban Oil Trains For Good

By Marc Yaggi, Executive Director, Waterkeeper Alliance, 08/11/2016 03:30 pm ET
Oil train derailment in Mosier, Oregon in June 2016. Photo credit: Columbia Riverkeeper

Just a little over two months ago, a disastrous oil train derailment occurred in Mosier, Oregon, spilling 47,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota. The fallout from that accident has seen the entire region debating whether transporting this hazardous crude oil by rail through local communities and along our nation’s rivers is worth the risk. It’s time for the debate to close, and for all sides to realize the hard truth: oil trains like the one that derailed in Mosier pose an immediate threat to communities around the country, and it is time we demand immediate action.

Waterkeeper Alliance’s report, Deadly Crossing: Neglected Bridges & Exploding Oil Trains, written in partnership with STAND and Hudson Riverkeeper, showed that many of the bridges these oil trains pass over show signs of neglect and disrepair. The report also highlighted that the public cannot access any meaningful information regarding the safety of rail bridges in their community. In response to these concerns, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) now has a way for local officials to request public bridge inspections. This is a small victory, but the threat of these oil trains still lingers in communities across the country, and the only true solution is to ban these trains altogether.

No community wants a potentially lethal oil train speeding past their schools, behind their homes, or near their precious water sources. We need to stand together to demand a complete ban on oil trains. Please join this petition to call on the Department of Transportation to recognize that oil trains are inherently unsafe for our communities and waterways, and to use all available authority to stop oil train traffic throughout the country.

No decision on Phillips 66 oil-by-rail proposal after fifth day of hearings

Repost from the San Luis Obispo Tribune

No decision on Phillips 66 oil-by-rail proposal after fifth day of hearings

By David Sneed, April 15, 2016 10:27 AM

Planning Commission continues the discussion to May 16, when a decision is expected
• Panel considered a range of issues, including air quality, bridge safety and emergency response
• Public turnout Friday was light because no public comment was taken

Planning commissioners listen Friday during the fifth hearing on Phillips 66’s oil-by-rail proposal for its Nipomo Mesa refinery.
Planning commissioners listen Friday during the fifth hearing on Phillips 66’s oil-by-rail proposal for its Nipomo Mesa refinery. Credit: David Middlecamp

After a fifth daylong hearing, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission did not come to a decision on a controversial proposed rail spur project at the Phillips 66 Nipomo Mesa refinery and scheduled a sixth and possibly final hearing for May 16.

During Friday’s hearing, the commission considered a wide range of issues associated with the project, including air quality, bridge safety, hazards, emergency response and the composition of the oil to be shipped. One of the greatest fears regarding the proposed rail spur at the Phillips 66 oil refinery is that one of the long trains supplying the refinery could derail in a fiery crash.

“What is a rail car going to do if it turns over on the (Cuesta) Grade,” asked Commissioner Jim Irving. “Is it going to blow up?”

Jim Anderson, refinery manager, said the company will use the latest, most up-to-date tankers to transport the oil according to the Department of Transportation requirements to prevent that from happening. He also said the type of crude oil the tankers will be hauling is the heavier, less flammable kind.

“These cars are the state-of-the-art according to the DOT,” he said. “We will not start this project without those cars.”

John Peirson, a consultant with Marine Research Specialists of Ventura, which prepared the project’s environmental impact report, said even with the heavier crude oil, crashes have resulted in explosions and fireballs. He also said a thinner would be added to make the oil easier to pump and transport, and that this would increase its flammability.

“It is less likely, but it is possible,” he said.

For oil train accidents, the evacuation zone along the railroad is half a mile on either side. In San Luis Obispo County, 88,377 people live within half a mile of the tracks, said Ryan Hostetter, senior county planner.

The evacuation zone is the area adjacent to the tracks in which a person is liable to be injured in the event of a fire and explosion. Of greatest risk are densely populated areas and public facilities such as schools and hospitals. For example, Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo is near the railroad.

“These are areas where you would expect very severe consequences,” said Steve Radis, another MRS consultant. “Potentially, if you were outdoors, you could be injured, and evacuating a hospital would be a major disruption.”

The amount of crude oil transported by rail has increased 50 times since 2009. Since that time, three accidents a year involving oil cars have occurred nationally, none locally, Radis said.

In October 2015, Cal Fire conducted a simulated oil car derailment accident drill at the California Men’s Colony prison that involved 100 people. The simulation included multiple fires, creek pollution and inmate injuries, Battalion Chief Laurie Donnelly said.

It took several hours to put the oil fires out, but the most time-consuming part of the drill was treating the injured inmates.

“We did well, but we found a few areas of improvement, which is to be expected in a drill like that,” she said.

More than 50 people were in attendance Friday at the commission’s fifth hearing on the project.

Public turnout at Friday’s hearing was light compared with past hearings, which attracted hundreds of people. The light turnout was attributable to the fact that no public comment was taken.

The oil company has applied to build a 1.3-mile rail spur with five parallel tracks from the main rail line to its Nipomo Mesa refinery, an unloading facility at the refinery and on-site pipelines.

These improvements would allow the refinery to accept five trains a week for a maximum of 250 trains per year to deliver crude oil to the refinery. Each train would have three locomotives, two buffer cars and 80 rail cars carrying a total of 2.2 million gallons of crude oil.

County staff is recommending the proposal be denied. The project drew more than 400 speakers at previous hearings as well as thousands of letters and comments sent from around the state.

Opponents say the project will cause air pollution and other environmental consequences. They are also concerned about a derailment causing an oil spill and fire.

In order to reduce these environmental impacts, Phillips 66 has offered to reduce the shipments to three trains a week, or 150 per year.

Supporters say the project is needed to keep the refinery economically viable and protect its 200 jobs. They also point out that the refinery has operated safely and the state needs the oil products it will produce.

Whatever decision the Planning Commission makes will certainly be appealed to the county Board of Supervisors.