Category Archives: Hazardous cargo transparency

Bakersfield High School worst-case derailment scenario

Repost from the Bakersfield Californian
[Editor: this is a MUST READ article, a comprehensive and graphic description of first-responder requirements and readiness.  Someone needs to interview first responders in each of our Bay Area refinery towns, ask every single question referenced in this article, and lay out similar scenarios for the all-too-imaginable catastrophes that threaten our communities.  – RS]

Increased oil train traffic raises potential for safety challenges

By John Cox, Californian staff writer  |  May 17, 2014
Bakersfield High School is seen in the background behind the rail cars that go through town as viewed from the overpass on Oak Street.  By Casey Christie / The Californian
Bakersfield High School is seen in the background behind the rail cars that go through town as viewed from the overpass on Oak Street. By Casey Christie / The Californian

First responders think of the rail yard by Bakersfield High School when they envision the worst-case scenario in Kern County’s drive to become a major destination for Midwestern oil trains.  If a derailment there punctures and ignites a string of tank cars, the fireball’s heat will be felt a mile away and flames will be a hundred feet high. Thick acrid black smoke will cover an area from downtown to Valley Plaza mall. Burning oil will flow through storm drains and sewers, possibly shooting flames up through manholes.

Some 3,000 BHS students and staff would have to be evacuated immediately. Depending on how many tank cars ignite, whole neighborhoods may have to be cleared, including patients and employees at 194-bed Mercy Hospital.  State and county fire officials say local 911 call centers will be inundated, and overtaxed city and county firefighters, police and emergency medical services will have to call for help from neighboring counties and state agencies.

While the potential for such an accident has sparked urgency around the state and the country, it has attracted little notice locally — despite two ongoing oil car offloading projects that would push Kern from its current average of receiving a single mile-long oil train delivery about once a month, to one every six hours.

One project is Dallas-based Alon USA Energy Inc.’s proposed oil car offloading facility at the company’s Rosedale Highway refinery. The other is being developed near Taft by Plains All American Pipeline LP, based in Houston.

Kern’s two projects, and three others proposed around the state, would greatly reduce California’s thirst for foreign crude. State energy officials say the five projects should increase the amount of crude California gets by rail from less than 1 percent of the state’s supply last year to nearly a quarter by 2016.

But officials who have studied the BHS derailment scenario say more time and money should be invested in coordinated drills and additional equipment to prepare for what could be a uniquely difficult and potentially disastrous oil accident.

Bakersfield High Principal David Reese met late last year with representatives of Alon, which hopes to start bringing mile-long “unit trains” — two per day — through the rail yard near campus.

He said Alon’s people told him about plans for double-lined tank cars and other safety measures “to make me feel better” about the project. But he still worries.

“I told them, ‘You may assure me but I continue to be concerned about the safety of my students and staff with any new (rail) project that comes within the vicinity of the school,'” he said.

Alon declined to comment for this story.

Both projects aim to capitalize on the current price difference between light crude on the global market and Bakken Shale oil found in and around North Dakota. Thanks to the nation’s shale boom, the Midwest’s ability to produce oil has outpaced its capacity to transport it cheaper and more safely by pipeline. The resulting overabundance has depressed prices and prompted more train shipments.

There are no oil pipelines over the Rockies; rail is the next best mode of shipping oil to the West Coast. Kern County is viewed as an ideal place for offloading crude because of its oil infrastructure and experience with energy projects. Two facilities are proposed in Northern California, in Benicia and Pittsburg; [emphasis added] the other would be to the south, in Wilmington.

A local refinery, Kern Oil & Refining Co., has accepted Bakken oil at its East Panama Lane plant since at least 2012. The California Energy Commission says Kern Oil receives one unit train every four to six weeks.


Shipments of Bakken present special safety concerns. The oil has been found to be highly volatile, and the common mode of transporting it — in quick-loading trains of 100 or more cars carrying more than 3 million gallons per shipment — rules out the traditional safety practice of placing an inert car as a buffer between two containing dangerous materials.

The dangers of shipping Bakken crude by unit train have been evident in several fiery derailments over the past year. One in July in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings when a 74-car runaway train jumped the tracks at 63 mph.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said 99.9 percent of U.S. oil rail cars reached their destination without incident last year. Two of its divisions, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, have issued emergency orders, safety advisories and special inspections relating to oil car shipments. New rules on tank car standards and operational controls for “high-hazard flammable trains” are in the federal pipeline.

Locally operating companies Union Pacific Railroad Co. and BNSF Railway Co. signed an agreement with the DOT to voluntarily lower train speeds, have more frequent inspections, make new investments in brake technology and conduct additional first-responder training.

Until new federal rules take effect next year, railroads can only urge their customers to use tank cars meeting the higher standards.

“UP does not choose the tank car,” Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt wrote in an email. “We encourage our shippers to retrofit or phase out older cars.”

The San Joaquin Valley Railroad Co., owned by Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming Inc., is a short line that carries Kern Oil’s oil shipments and would serve the Plains project but not Alon’s. A spokesman said SJVR is working with the larger railroads to upgrade its line, and the company inspects tracks ahead of every unit train arrival, among other measures designed just for oil shipments.


Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a big change in the way California protects against and responds to oil spills.

His 2014-15 budget calls for $6.7 million in new spending on the state’s Oil Spill Prevention and Administration Fund to add 38 inland positions, a 15 percent staffing increase. Currently the agency focuses on ocean shipments, which have been the norm for out-of-state oil deliveries in California.

To help pay for the expansion, Brown wants to expand a 6.5 cent-per-barrel fee to not only marine terminals but all oil headed for California refineries.

“We’ll have a more robust response capability,” said Thomas Cullen, an administrator at the Office of Spill Prevention and Response, which is within the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

A representative of the oil trade group Western States Petroleum Association criticized the proposal March 19 at a legislative joint hearing in Sacramento. Lobbyist Ed Manning said OSPR lacks inland reach, and that giving such responsibilities to an agency with primarily marine experience “doesn’t really respond to the problem.”

WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd has emphasized the group has not taken a position on Brown’s OSPR proposal.

Also at the state capitol, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, has forwarded legislation requiring railroads to give first responders more information about incoming oil shipments and publicly share spill contingency plans. The bill, AB 380, would also direct state grants toward local contingency planning and training. It is pending before the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.


In recent years Kern County has conducted large-scale, multi-agency emergency drills to prepare for an earthquake, disease outbreak and Isabella Dam break. There has not been a single oil spill drill.

Emergency service officials say that’s not as bad as it sounds because disasters share common actions — notification, evacuation, decontamination.

Nevertheless, State Fire and Rescue Chief Kim Zagaris, County Fire Chief Brian Marshall and Kern Emergency Services Manager Georgianna Armstrong support the idea of local oil spill drills involving public safety agencies, hospitals and others.

Kern County is well-versed at handling hazardous materials. Some local officials say an oil accident may actually be less dangerous than the release of toxic chemicals, which also travel through the county on a regular basis.

There have been recent accidents, but all were relatively minor.

Federal records list 18 oil or other hazardous material spills on Kern County railroads in the last 10 years. No one was injured; together the accidents caused $752,000 in property damage.

Most involved chemicals such as sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid. Only two resulted in crude oil spills, both in 2013 in the 93305 ZIP code in the city of Bakersfield. Together they spilled a little more than a gallon of oil.

But the risk of spills rises significantly as the volume of oil passing through the county grows.

“The volume is a big deal,” Bakersfield Fire Chief Douglas R. Greener said. “Potentially, if you have a train derail, you could see numerous cars of the same type of material leaking all at once.”

Kern County firefighters are better prepared for an oil spill than many other first responders around the state. They train on an actual oil tanker and have special tools to mend rail car punctures and gashes. The county fire department has several trucks carrying spray foam that suffocates industrial fires.

But Chief Marshall acknowledged a bad rail accident could strain the department’s resources.

He has been speaking with Alon about securing additional firefighting equipment and foam to ensure an appropriate response to any oil train derailment related to the company’s proposed offloading facility.

What comes of those talks is expected to be included in an upcoming environmental review of the project.

“We recognize the need to increase our industrial firefighting program,” Marshall said.

Chief Zagaris said Kern’s proximity to on-call emergency agencies in Tulare, Kings and Los Angeles counties may come in handy under the Bakersfield High spill scenario, which is based on fire officials’ assessments and reports from several similar incidents over the past year.

He and Marshall would not estimate how many people would require evacuation in the event of a disaster near the school, or what specific levels of emergency response might become necessary.

But Zagaris said local public safety officials would almost certainly require outside help to assess injuries, transfer people in need of medical care, secure the city and contain the spill itself.

“I look at it as, you know, depending what it is and where it happens will dictate how quickly” outside resources would have to be pulled in, he said.

Community right-to-know laws: what is in those “bomb trains”?

Repost from International Business Times

After Oil Train Accidents, US Communities Want To Know What’s Inside Rail Freight

By Meagan Clark  |  May 02 2014
North Dakota train explosion A plume of smoke rises behind a train near Casselton, N.D., Monday, Dec. 30, 2013. Reuters

When an oil train derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Virginia, on Wednesday afternoon, City Manager Kimball Payne was as surprised as any of the town’s 77,000 residents; he had no idea that crude oil was being moved through town on a regular basis.

The accident, in which three tank cars tumbled into the James River, spilling 20,000 to 25,000 gallons of crude, was just the latest in a series of fiery oil train accidents around the country, which have sparked debate about the safety of freight rail and raised concerns among residents often unaware of the oil, gas and chemicals being transported through their communities.

As crude-by-rail has increased across the country in recent years, increasing 443 percent nationwide between 2005 and 2012, accidents have been on the rise. In the past year, eight explosive accidents, some fatal, have rocked communities from Alabama to North Dakota. Last year, an accident in Quebec caused 47 deaths and the evacuation of more than 2,000 people.

Those accidents are prompting federal regulators to propose, as soon as next week, standards for rail tank cars carrying oil, announced Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Community right-to-know laws dating from 1986 require facilities to disclose what hazardous chemicals are stored and used in a town, but the laws don’t extend to trains. By federal law, railroad and oil companies don’t have to disclose their exact freight contents or when and how much of their freight will pass through localities.

“Our community has a right to know what’s going on,” Bart Mihailovich, director of the Riverkeepers program at the nonprofit Center for Justice in Spokane, Washington, said. “What trains are traveling through Spokane and the inland northwest, what’s in them, and how dangerous are they? We have a right to know about emergency response plans and the risks we’re assuming by living, working and playing in this area.”

Payne, Lynchburg’s city manager, has lived in the area for 13 years and said he didn’t know trains were carrying oil through the bustling downtown district until the derailment this week.

“But I don’t know what’s on the tractor trucks going through the city every day either,” Payne said. “What would we do if we did know?”

“If anything’s going to be changed, it’s going to have to be changed at the federal level or maybe the state level. I know I have no authority over those railroads.”

The mayor of Casselton, North Dakota, where an oil train crash on Dec. 30 spilled 400,000 gallons of crude and forced the evacuation of residents, estimates that seven or eight trains a day, most carrying oil, pass through the rural town everyday. Edward McConnell remembers the city council had concerns over chlorine riding the rails several years ago. While training the fire department, the town spoke with the state and federal transportation departments about the contents and amounts of freight passing through.

“Their basic answer was when we have an accident, you’ll know what’s in the cars by the placard,” he said. Red diamond-shaped placards with the numbers 1267 designate crude, though not what type of crude, which could indicate how flammable or explosive it is.

“It would be nice to know [more details of the cars’ contents], but I don’t think it’s something that’s going to get much traction,” McConnell said. “Railroads have a lot of friends in Congress, and they’re not going to let too many bills through that [the railroads] don’t want. I’ve been dealing with railroads a lot of years — you can go up against them but at the end of the day they pretty much get what they want.”

Activist Matt Landon has decided the only way to know what’s passing through his neighborhood in Vancouver, Washington, is to track it himself. In April, he organized a group of seven volunteers to count how many oil trains are passing by Vancouver Bluff and, with infrared cameras, to monitor hydrocarbon gas venting out of the tank cars, a phenomenon called burping or off gassing. He hopes his efforts over time will force the government to increase regulation on the rail and oil industries.

“We have to protect our community,” he said. “It’s even hard for first responders to have access to this information. The U.S. government is deciding not to protect our communities so we have to stand up.”

A plume of smoke rises behind a train near Casselton, N.D., Monday, Dec. 30, 2013. Reuters

NY Governor Cuomo sends letter to President Obama an hour before Lynchburg explosion

Repost from The Auburn Citizen, Auburn, NY
[Editor: See below for copy of Governor Cuomo’s letter and the New York State Transporting Crude Oil Report.  – RS]

Cuomo to President Obama: Better federal safety standards needed for rail transport of crude oil

April 30, 2014 • Robert Harding
Train Derailment
Firefighters and rescue workers work along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown in Lynchburg, Va.., Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Police said that 13 or 14 tanker cars were involved in the derailment. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Shortly before a train carrying tankers filled with crude oil derailed and exploded in Lynchburg, Va., Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged the federal government to establish better safety regulations for the rail transport of crude oil to help prevent major accidents from occurring that could pose a threat to New York communities located along rail lines.

Cuomo sent a letter Wednesday to President Barack Obama calling for tougher federal regulations. In the letter, Cuomo included recommendations for the federal government, including new tank car regulations and updated environmental and contingency response plans. He also called for the removal of DOT-111 tank cars, a type of car that has been labeled “dangerous” because of the high risk of explosion if it derails carrying crude oil.

“As a result of the recent boom in domestic petroleum production, New York state is experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of crude oil trains passing through the state from production areas in the upper Midwest to refineries in the mid-Atlantic and Canada,” Cuomo wrote to President Obama. “This type of crude oil, known as Bakken crude, is highly volatile and is being transported in significant volume across the country by inadequate rail tank cars.

“New York and all the states subject to this crude oil boom are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of a derailment, spill, fire or explosion, as demonstrated by three catastrophic incidents in the last nine months involving such trains. I urge your immediate attention to this issue.”

The recommendations for the federal government were included in a report released Wednesday. The report, Transporting Crude Oil in New York State: A Review of Incident Prevention and Response Capacity, was prepared by a handful of state agencies after Cuomo issued an executive order in January.

While the report makes recommendations to the federal government for improving rail transportation safety, emergency preparedness and strengthening environmental protections, the agencies also recommended the state take action in these three areas.

The report also recommends industry changes, including implementation of a web-based information access system by rail companies to provide real-time information on hazardous materials. The agencies also called for an expedited risk analysis for crude oil to determine the safest and most secure rail routes for trains with at least 20 cars of crude oil.

While Cuomo said the state can take steps to be better prepared, he said it’s the federal government’s responsibility to regulate the industry.

“New York will continue to aggressively pursue measures that ensure its safety,” Cuomo wrote. “However, the fundamental responsibility for the safe transportation of crude oil across the country resides with federal agencies.”

Cuomo’s office distributed the governor’s letter to President Obama and the state report about an hour before reports of the train accident in Lynchburg, Va. The News & Advance in Lynchburg reports that an estimated 50,000 gallons of crude oil was spilled in the incident.

After learning of the train derailment, Cuomo issued a statement repeating his call for the federal government to take action.

“Earlier today, I wrote a letter to President Obama urging the federal government take immediate steps to bring much needed and overdue safety regulations to the crude oil transportation system. Just hours later, news comes of yet another serious oil train derailment, this time in Lynchburg, Virginia. Our thoughts and prayers are with any possible victims of this accident,” Cuomo said.

“This is the latest in a series of accidents involving trains transporting crude oil, a startling pattern that underscores the need for action. In addition to steps that states like New York are taking, the federal government must overhaul the safety regulations, starting with taking DOT-111 trains off the rails now. These trains travel through populated communities in upstate New York and we cannot wait for a tragic disaster in our state to act.”

Here is the letter from Cuomo to President Obama:

Gov. Cuomo’s letter to President Obama

Here is the state report on transporting crude oil:

New York State Transporting Crude Oil Report