Over the last three weeks, communities everywhere have watched in horror and solidarity with the people of East Palestine, Ohio. Few of those communities have experienced the depth of concern and understanding as here in Benicia, California.
Here’s my 1-minute video commentary.
Backstory, and looking ahead…
In 2013, the Benicia Valero Refinery proposed bringing in two 50-car bomb trains every day, filled with Canadian tar sands crude oil. It took 3 years, but a staunch group of citizens and an incredible army of allies eventually overcame Valero’s slick campaign. On September 20, 2016, with backing from the Benicia Planning Commission, the California Attorney General and the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, Benicia’s City Council voted to deny Valero’s proposal. The City breathed a sigh of relief. And we continue to marvel at our good fortune, and the good fortune of communities uprail from here.
Our collective breath of relief, however, must be challenged by the everyday passage of trains carrying multiple hazardous cargos through our town and across the bridge to other San Francisco Bay Area cities. Stricter regulations are needed from federal and state authorities. Regulations on the trains and the profit-seeking companies that run them, on the rails, and on public preparations for potential disasters. As I said in the video, This is NOT Benicia, but WHO WILL BE NEXT?
[BenIndy Editor – No mention of Benicia or Solano County in this article, but check out Caltrans’ Freight Rail Network map below, showing freight traffic through Benicia and surrounding areas. Our hearts go out to residents of East Palestine as we remember and give thanks for Benicia’s successful defeat of Valero’s Crude by Rail proposal in 2016. – R.S.]
Since the start of 2021, 334 trains have derailed in California
The menacing cloud of toxic smoke over East Palestine, Ohio, after a train derailment earlier this month is hovering in the thoughts of Leisa Johnson every time a train chugs past her neighborhood along the coast in Richmond: Could a disaster like that happen in her own backyard?
Stuck at the train crossing for as long as 30 minutes sometimes, Johnson has a lot of time to think about what could go wrong as long trains with dozens of black tanker cars head to and from the Kinder Morgan crude oil processing plant and other industries.
“Most people in the public have no clue what’s on them,” said Johnson. “A few years ago, there was a freakin’ train derailed,” she recalled, sharing photos of a large black tanker car tipped on its side, houses visible directly behind it. Luckily there was no leak or spill that time, as far as she knows.
Every day, hazardous materials and toxic chemicals are transported through the Bay Area to oil refineries, pesticide plants, bleach manufacturers and agricultural centers in the area and around the state. Train traffic is especially heavy through the industrial hubs such as the Port of Oakland and the Richmond refineries.
Since the start of 2021, 334 trains have derailed in California — nearly one every other day — including four that led to hazardous material spills, according to data from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
Some fear an accident like the one that shook Ohio could be next.
“It could happen anywhere,” said Patti Goldman, a senior attorney with Earth Justice, an environmental advocacy group that has sued the federal government over rail safety regulations in the past.
On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in eastern Ohio, leading to a leak of vinyl chloride, a chemical used to make PVC pipes. Authorities evacuated the town of East Palestine and conducted a controlled burn of the leaking chemicals to prevent an explosion. EPA officials say the air and municipal water is now safe, but residents have reported health complications and concerns about returning.
Specifics about which hazardous chemicals are shipped through the Bay Area are hard to come by, partly for national security reasons. But crude oil coming in and out of refineries in Richmond is often a focus of concern. One report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found more than 50,000 people lived within a half-mile federally mandated evacuation zone for a derailment in the Richmond area.
Adam Springer, an assistant director of Contra Costa County’s HazMat team, said hazardous chemicals are “constantly” shipped through his county, including flammable gases, sulfuric acid, alcohols and anhydrous ammonia.
Springer said one of the most common problems is overfilled tankers loaded on trains that can release toxic chemicals through pressure valves when the liquid expands under heat.
“That happens actually quite often,” he said. But Springer said the county’s hazmat team is still waiting to see if Ohio’s derailment disaster highlights any specific risks in the Bay Area.
Union Pacific and BNSF the nation’s two largest rail companies have successfully fought multiple attempts to increase hazardous materials regulations. A 2015 California law that tacked on extra fees for hazardous material shipments to bolster the state’s emergency railway spill response was struck down by a court.
“These companies are putting the pursuit of lower operating costs, lower operating ratios and higher profits above safety,” said Louie Costa, the California State Legislative Director for Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation Union (SMART), which represents train conductors and other rail workers. “The cuts they are making are putting the communities these trains run through, our employees and the citizens in those communities at risk.”
A threatened nationwide rail strike in 2022 made the public aware of complaints from the unions about the safety of our rail systems. The unions say understaffing and a new operating system are increasing the risk of accidents for the sake of profits.
“Trains have gotten longer and longer, which puts a lot more wear and tear on the tracks and the infrastructure,” said Costa, who says the workforce has been cut and the remaining staff are stretched thin. “All of that leads up to potential situations, like the one that happened in Ohio, and can happen here.”
Industry officials say trains are the safest way to transport many dangerous but critical substances and point to the much higher accident rates for trucks.
In a short statement, Union Pacific said the railroad has an emergency response center operating around the clock and “robust” emergency management plan in place for railway disasters. “Union Pacific shares the same goals as our customers and the communities we serve — to deliver every tank car safely. We are required by federal law to transport chemicals and other hazardous commodities that Americans use daily, including fertilizer, ethanol, crude oil and chlorine.”
Texas-based BNSF declined to offer detailed comments about its operations.
California has seen some major train derailment disasters in the past. In July 1991, a train carrying an herbicide derailed in Northern California, spilling 19,000 gallons of the hazardous material into the Sacramento River near Dunsmuir.
“Every living creature in the water, downstream from the spill, died,” according to the summary report from the over decade-long recovery project. “The chemical plume left a 41-mile wake of destruction, from the spill site to the entry point of the river into Shasta Lake.”
Other train derailments involving hazardous materials have happened in the Bay Area more recently, with less catastrophic results.
Costa said that from the perspective of the workers, rail transport has “gotten exponentially … less safe.” As a former conductor, he said he took pride in delivering his cargo safely, but concerns among the workers are growing. “If you go into the crew rooms, that’s the talk,” he said, “something’s gonna happen, something’s gonna happen, something’s gonna happen.”
“Well something happened, and we pray that it doesn’t happen here,” Costa said.
Five days after a train carrying vinyl chloride derailed and exploded near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, crews ignited a controlled burn of toxic chemicals to prevent a much more dangerous explosion.
Thousands in East Palestine, a town of about 5,000 people, evacuated, and officials warned the controlled burn would create a phosgene and hydrogen chloride plume across the region. Phosgene is a highly toxic gas that can cause vomiting and breathing trouble, and was used as a weapon in the first world war.
Though no one died in the accident, the catastrophe serves as a wake-up call to the potential for more deadly freight rail derailments, public health advocates warn. By one estimate, 25 million Americans live in an oil train blast zone, and had the derailment occurred just a few miles east, it would be burning in downtown Pittsburgh, with tens of thousands of residents in immediate danger.
Ineffective oversight and a largely self-monitoring industry that has cut the nation’s rail workforce to the bone in recent years as it puts record profits over safety is responsible for the wreck, said Ron Kaminkow, an Amtrak locomotive engineer and former Norfolk Southern freight engineer.
“The Palestine wreck is the tip of the iceberg and a red flag,” said Kaminkow, who is secretary for the Railroad Workers United, a non-profit labor group that coordinates with the nation’s rail unions. “If something is not done, then it’s going to get worse, and the next derailment could be cataclysmic.”
About 4.5m tons of toxic chemicals are shipped by rail each year and an average of 12,000 rail cars carrying hazardous materials pass through cities and towns each day, according to the US Department of Transportation.
The latest accident comes after 47 people were killed in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013 when a runaway train exploded. In February 2020, a crude oil train derailed and exploded outside Guernsey, Saskatchewan, and an ethanol train in Kentucky derailed and burst into flames a week later.
The Pittsburgh region alone has seen eight train derailments over the last five years, according to the public health advocacy group Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh (RPPP), and about 1,700 annually occur nationally. The causes of the Pittsburgh accidents highlight the myriad ways in which things can go wrong. A crack in a track ignored by rail companies caused a 2018 derailment, while another train hit a dump truck at a crossing with inadequate safety equipment. A broken axle on a train car is thought to be the source of the East Palestine accident.
Up to 50% of volatile Bakken crude oil refined on the east coast currently runs through metro Pittsburgh, RPPP estimated, and about 176,000 Pittsburghers live in the derailment blast zone.
Rail traffic is projected to increase through the region as a new Shell plastic plant comes online and rail infrastructure, like tracks and bridges, are in a precarious state, said Glenn Olcrest, founder of RPPP.
“The railroads are playing Russian roulette with Pittsburgh,” he said. “We are a prime candidate for a major derailment and explosion.”
Still, the US transportation department (DoT) in 2020 approved a rule to allow liquified natural gas, or LNG, to be shipped via rail with no additional safety regulations. Trains can now run 100 or more tank cars filled with 30,000 gallons of the substance, largely from shale fields to saltwater ports.
The decision was opposed by local leaders, unions, fire departments and the NTSB.
“The risks of catastrophic LNG releases in accidents is too great not to have operational controls in place before large blocks of tank cars and unit trains proliferate,” the NTSB wrote in a comment on the proposed rule.
Just 22 train tank cars filled with LNG hold the same amount of energy as the Hiroshima bomb, a coalition of environmental groups wrote in comments to regulators opposing the LNG rail rule change in 2020. That is raising fears of a catastrophe if a proposed LNG port is built in New Jersey, which could take shipments from two 100-car trains daily that would run through nearby metro Philadelphia.
An LNG fire is extremely difficult for local crews to contain, and shipping it via rail is “an extremely dangerous practice”, said Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Kimberly Ong.
“We’ve been astonished by the effect that the spillage of five cars of vinyl chloride has had at the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, but that would be nothing compared to the effects of a similar derailment of LNG,” she added.
In Florida, plans to expand passenger rail service also seem designed to increase LNG shipment capacity by the company behind the effort, said Susan Mehiel, coordinator of the Alliance for Safer Trains. The public safety advocacy group fears higher-speed passenger trains sharing tracks with freight trains carrying LNG and other chemicals could ignite a disaster like that in East Palestine.
Eastern Ohio is less dense than most of where Florida’s lines run, Mehiel added. An LNG explosion in denser east Florida would likely be much more deadly, she said.
“There’s no evacuation because you’re dead, so it’s very frightening,” Mehiel said.
Under the Biden administration, the transportation department has proposed a suspension of the Trump-era LNG rule allowing the substance to be transported via rail and to replace it with a new rule. The suspension was supposed to be published by June 2022, but it and the new rule have been delayed twice, and are now supposed to be final in March, Ong said.
“I don’t know if this is a priority for DoT,” she added.
The Railroad Workers United pinned the threat on rail industry cuts to inspection staff and the elimination of safety protocol. The East Palestine train was hurried, the non-profit said in a statement, and though a cause hasn’t been fully determined, it appears the train was not properly inspected.
Rail companies laid off more than 20,000 rail workers during a year period in 2018-2019, representing the biggest layoffs in rail since the Great Recession, and the nation’s rail force has dipped below 200,000 – the lowest level ever, and down from 1 million at its peak.
“They have cut the hell out of the workforce, and there are big plans to cut it further,” Kaminkow said. “Just because the rail companies are profitable doesn’t mean they’re healthy.”
A train carrying over 100 cars of volatile Bakken oil derailed in Washington state, causing the evacuation of the town of Custer. At least two of the train cars ruptured and the oil ignited and burned — reminding us once again why these dangerous trains are known as bomb trains.
Matt Krogh of Stand.earth has been leading efforts to keep these dangerous trains off the tracks for years, so he was well aware of the potential deadly consequences of oil train accidents in populated areas. Krogh could see the smoke from this latest accident from his home in Bellingham, Washington.
It’s easy to feel lucky after a near miss with an oil train derailment and fire near a populated area because in 2013 an oil train full of Bakken oil derailed and caused catastrophic fires and explosions in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, — killing 47 people and destroying much of the downtown area. Downtown Lac-Mégantic has yet to be rebuilt more than seven years later.
Regulators Argue Safety Is Not A Pretext for Regulation
The state of Washington is well aware of the dangers the oil trains pose to the public and the environment and have attempted to address this issue with state regulations. Washington has five oil refineries that all are highly dependent on Bakken crude by rail. Crude-by-rail movements in the U.S. and Canada fluctuate significantly based on market conditions, but the Washington refineries are one destination for Bakken oil that maintain consistent demand for the oil, and rail is the only option to get it to Washington — so the risks to Washington residents who live near the train tracks are ever present.
In 2016 a Bakken oil train derailed in Mosier, Oregon along the Columbia River highlighting the risk the trains pose in the Pacific Northwest. Many trains bring the Bakken oil through Oregon and the Columbia River gorge to Washington.
In my 2019 book Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk I explain why the trains carrying highly volatile Bakken oil are dangerous and the simple steps the oil and rail industries could take to remove these dangers. All are steps the industries have successfully lobbied against despite the risks to the public and the 47 fatalities in Lac-Mégantic.
“If the federal government won’t act to protect public safety and adopt a safer nationwide standard, we will adopt our own,” state Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) said in March 2019 of the bill he sponsored. “There is just too much to lose — for people and our environment.”
As DeSmog reported in May, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) did act, but that action was to overrule Washington’s proposed regulation with the argument that safety regulations could not get in the way of markets — arguing that a state can not use “safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth.”
New Administration May Offer Chance at Safety Regulations
The act by the Trump administration’s regulators of withdrawing the proposed federal rule to limit oil volatility for transportation of crude oil by rail by was consistent with the official stated policy of deregulation with regards to rail safety.
This policy led to the removal of the most important safety regulation for oil-by-rail transportation that was enacted during the Obama era, which would have required oil trains to have modernized braking systems. The Trump administration removed that regulation in December of 2017.
The incoming Biden administration will have the opportunity to finally address the known dangers of moving hazardous oil, ethanol and liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail. Reinstating the braking requirement and regulating oil volatility would be important first steps. Two other areas that would improve safety would be limiting train lengths and requiring tank cars that weren’t easily punctured in derailments.
DeSmog has reported on how longer trains derail more often and yet there are no regulations for train length for trains moving hazardous materials. Most of the major derailments involving oil trains have involved trains with more than 100 cars, like the train in Custer.
The 2015 regulations for new tank cars for oil trains required the use of new DOT-117 model tank cars. As they did in this latest derailment, these tank cars have failed in all of the major derailments involving the cars hauling oil and ethanol.
Four years of the Trump administration overseeing the rail industry has put the public at even greater risk. The administration’s reckless approval of LNG-by-rail without proper safety testing or new regulations greatly increases the future danger to the public if the LNG industry starts using rail as a major mode of transportation.
Pete Buttigieg has been nominated to be the next Secretary of Transportation where he will have oversight of rail safety. At the very least Buttigeig could begin to protect the public by simply reinstating the oil-by-rail safety regulations that have been repealed, and then moving forward with the proposed regulations to limit the volatility of any crude oil moved by rail.
Until the oil and rail industries are properly regulated, the public will continue to be at great risk from bomb trains and will have to trust in luck to keep them safe.