Category Archives: Hazardous freight

This is NOT Benicia…

By Roger Straw, February 23, 2024
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? 

For more, see and the Benicia Independent’s Crude By Rail Archive.

Roger Straw
The Benicia Independent

Could a train derailment disaster like Ohio’s happen here in the Bay Area?

[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

A train carrying toxic chemicals that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, in early February has raised concerns about air, soil and water pollution in the region. | Credit Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Harriet Rowan and Eliyahu Kamisher, February 18, 2023

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.

Chevron Richmond Refinery, Oct. 18, 2021. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

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.

Click image to enlarge.  Source: Caltrans
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.

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of the controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

“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.

A derailed train car rest in the Sacramento River near Dunsmuir on July 15, 1991. The cars spilled weed killer, which killed animals and vegetation downstream to Lake Shasta. (Jay Mather/Sac Bee)

“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.

Ohio catastrophe is ‘wake-up call’ to dangers of deadly train derailments

The next derailment ‘could be cataclysmic’ if action isn’t taken after the incident near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, says expert

An aerial view of the train derailment several days after the incident, on 8 February, in East Palestine, Ohio. Photograph: MediaPunch/Rex/Shutterstock

The Guardian, by Tom Perkins, 11 Feb 2023

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.”

LATEST DERAILMENT: Baltimore MD hazardous materials train, no spill, no explosion

Repost from the Baltimore Sun

Work begins to clear derailed Howard Tunnel train; expected to take more than 24 hours

BSun_video_2016-06-13By Colin Campbell & Michael Dresser, June 13, 2016, 8:00PM EDT

CSX crews began uncoupling and removing train cars Monday evening from the Howard Street Tunnel in Baltimore, starting the process of clearing a derailment that shut down freight traffic through the city earlier in the day.

The Cumberland-bound train was carrying a volatile, flammable chemical when 13 cars went off the rails Monday morning, but authorities said there were no reports of leaks or injuries.

Work to clear the tunnel was expected to take more than 24 hours.

“This is going to be a long operation,” said Bob Maloney, the city’s emergency management director. “The Fire Department identified there was not an immediate threat to the public. We still consider that to be the case. We’re prepared if that changes.”

The 124-car train went off the rails near the tunnel’s north entrance at the Mount Royal Station in Bolton Hill about 5:45 a.m. Monday, authorities said. But they waited until after the evening rush hour to begin clearing the tracks.

In the event of a chemical spill during the clearing of the derailed cars, authorities said, the Fire Department would use a reverse 911 system to tell residents who live within a quarter-mile radius of the incident to shelter in place, officials said.

“Our meters show there’s no immediate danger,” Assistant Fire Chief Mark Wagner said.

Authorites are investigating the cause of the derailment. It started about one-third of the way through the train at car 47, one of the 18 that were carrying loads, authorities said.

The front of the train had entered the tunnel when the cars derailed just north of the tunnel, Maloney said. The derailed cars continued into the tunnel, where they stopped, he said.

The Philadelphia-to-Cumberland run “is a regular, routine route for this train,” said Brian Hammock, resident vice president of CSX.

Hammock said he did not know when the tunnel was last inspected. He said CSX has full confidence in all of its tracks throughout the city.

A day after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history Sunday at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Wagner called the FBI to help investigate the derailment. “With everything going on, especially in Orlando, I asked the FBI to be here because we want to rule out foul play,” Wagner said.

Investigators determined it was not caused intentionally.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said his department, too, was assisting. “We want to be on the ground at the very, very beginning in case a twist or turn occurs,” Davis said. “Twists and turns have not occurred, but we’re nonetheless involved right now in this critical incident.”

Several roads were closed near the tunnel Monday. They included a stretch of Howard Street between North Avenue and John Street.

The Maryland Transit Administration announced it was suspending light rail service between the Camden Yards and North Avenue stations after 10 p.m. Monday, and would use buses to ferry passengers between the two stops until midnight.

Freight rail traffic was stopped in the area Monday. The line running through the tunnel is used only by CSX freight trains; Amtrak and MARC service was not affected.

The Howard Street Tunnel is considered to be the most troublesome bottleneck for north-south freight train traffic on the East Coast.

For many years, transportation planners have discussed replacing the tunnel, but the estimated cost — $1 billion to $3 billion — has stymied progress.

In April, the Hogan administration and CSX announced a stripped-down, $425 million plan to expand the tunnel so that double-stacked trains could pass through.The state and the railroad pledged to kick in $270 million for the project and applied for a $155 million federal grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s FASTLANE program.

Matthew A. Clark, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said the state is waiting for a decision on its application. Federal officials are expected to announce awards this summer.

Since the spectacular tunnel derailment and fire of 2001 halted freight traffic in the corridor for almost a week, there have been a series of smaller-scale incidents along the approaches to the tunnels.

In 2005, a three-car derailment near the site of the 2001 incident prompted then-Mayor Martin O’Malley to call for a federal inspection.

Two years later, 12 cars derailed near M&T Bank Stadium. The next month, a CSX tanker left the rails in Locust Point.

Deadlier CSX derailments have occurred elsewhere in Maryland. In August 2012, two young women who were on railroad property in Ellicott City were killed when a train went off the tracks and spilled a load of coal on them. In 2000, a train left the tracks in the Western Maryland town of Bloomington, crashed into a home and killed a 15-year-old boy.

The last major CSX derailment in Maryland took place in May 2014, when three locomotives and 11 cars left the tracks while crossing a culvert blocked by debris in Prince George’s County. There were no injuries, but the mishap caused more than $300,000 in damage, federal records show.

Environmental advocates and city residents have long voiced concern about freight trains carrying hazardous chemicals through and underneath Baltimore’s neighborhoods. The City Council held a two-hour public hearing last summer on the safety of shipping crude oil through Baltimore.

Keisha Allen, president of the Westport Neighborhood Association, said her home is within a block of freight tracks — well within the “blast zone,” should a derailment cause an explosion.

“That’s the issue, the fact that it’s highly flammable,” she said.

Allen said she and her neighbors want the city to require CSX and Norfolk Southern to disclose what’s being shipped on the freight trains and when.

“There needs to be a clear indication of what’s coming through,” she said. “If it’s something that flammable, that volatile, there needs to be notification, at a minimum. … We would sleep better knowing there’s a process.”

Lawrence Mann, a Washington attorney who specializes in railroad liability cases, said the industry has generally been lax about track inspections.

“The railroads have either fired or furloughed thousands of track inspectors around the country,” he said. “They just don’t have the manpower to do the job that’s required.”

The country’s major railroads spent $28 billion on capital expenditures and maintenance in 2014, the Association of American Railroads reported Monday.

That investment increased to $30 billion last year and is expected to hover around $26 billion this year, said Edward Hamberger, president and CEO of the trade industry group.

That has increased from the roughly $20 billion in annual infrastructure investment between 1983 and 2011, as carriers work to keep up with customer demands for reliability and service, including new double-stack containers, he said.

The investments have also improved safety, Hamberger said. The association recently reported a 79 percent decline in train accidents since 1980.

“A well-maintained railroad is a safer railroad,” he said. “The fact that we can spend this amount of money to put in new tracks, all-new technologies, and maintain it is really a point that needs to be driven home.”

He said some carriers have been reluctant to participate in public-private partnerships because public money typically comes with constraints and major projects often get bogged down in lengthy public permitting procedures.

“It’s never fast enough, but we’re trying to do the best we can,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Natalie Sherman contributed to this article.