Category Archives: Spill prevention and response

Barrington Illinois leading the charge on rail safety

Repost from National Geographic / Daily News

Photo of a train loaded crude oil passing through the Chicago area.

The amount of crude oil being transported on trains like this one, seen in Illinois and bound east, has increased 85-fold since 2006. Recent accidents involving oil trains have raised safety concerns.  PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL MEIER
Marianne Lavelle
National Geographic

When a freight train rolls through Barrington, Illinois, gates with flashing lights lower to block all four of the village’s cross-town thoroughfares—often at the same time. It happens 20 times a day.

And as more and more of those trains have become “unit trains”—carrying only one type of freight, crude oil—residents have been voicing concerns about matters far more urgent than the time they lose idling at grade crossings. “People are seeing those black cars and they know there’s something different going on,” said village president Karen Darch. (See related blog post:“Eight Steps for Safer Oil Trains Eyed by U.S. Safety Officials”)

Barrington, a suburb of about 10,000 people 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of Chicago, has been leading a push for tougher U.S. safety regulations on the nation’s sharply increasing oil train traffic. Some tangible action on that plea came Thursday, when U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx held a closed-door meeting in Washington, D.C., to press oil and rail company executives to come up with a plan for safer operation of oil trains.

Foxx gave the executives 30 days to produce recommendations to address a host of safety issues, from weak tank cars to the lack of real-time data on freight risks for emergency responders. The unusual meeting indicated that President Barack Obama’s administration is seeking immediate steps to boost safety while the department works on new regulations that could be a year away.

For more than 20 years, safety investigators have been warning that the majority of  tank cars used to haul flammable liquids on North American railroads are prone to puncture. And with sharply increasing production of both petroleum products and ethanol in the past five years, there is now an “unprecedented volume of flammable liquids currently in rail commerce,” said the investigative agency, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in a recent regulatory filing.

Proposals for new rules languished until last July 6, when an unattended crude-oil train rolled down a grade at high speed into Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where it derailed and exploded, leveling the center of the small lakeside town and killing 47 people. (See related stories: “Oil Train Crash Probe Raises Five Key Issues on Cause” and “Oil Train Tragedy in Canada Spotlights Rising Crude Transport by Rail.”)

Since then, there have been at least four other fiery oil train derailments involving the same suspect tank cars in North America, including two in just the past three weeks. Some 2,400 residents near Fargo, North Dakota, were forced to flee their homes on December 30 when an oil train collided with a train carrying grain. (See related, “N.D. Oil Train Fire Spotlights Risks of Transporting Crude.”) Then, on January 7, a train carrying crude oil and propane derailed in northwest New Brunswick, Canada; authorities evacuated 45 homes and barred residents from the site for four days while the fire burned.

Although no one was hurt in either incident, industry observers believe the most recent accidents have increased pressure on regulators, both in the United States and Canada.

A tanker train carrying crude oil burns after derailing in western Alabama

The November derailment of a tanker train carrying crude in western Alabama was one of at least four oil train accidents in the last three months.  PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL CASTLE, ABC 33/40 VIA AP
Action can’t come soon enough for the train towns that have watched up close as crude oil shipments on U.S. Class 1 railroads, the major freight lines, increased 85-fold since 2006, from 4,700 carloads to 400,000 in 2013, according to a rail industry regulatory filing. In Barrington, Darch notes that many of her constituents, including her own husband, rely on trains: the commuter line that takes them into Chicago each day on separate tracks that intersect the newly busy freight line, also at a grade crossing. “It’s ironic,” she said. “The town has grown up on the rail and we don’t want to die on the rail.”

Unsafe at Any Speed?

The most controversial issue before the U.S. regulators is whether to order retrofits or an aggressive phaseout of the rail tank cars called DOT-111s. As early as 1991, the NTSB warned the cars were inadequate for flammable materials and were unable to withstand the forces of an accident, even in a train traveling at slow speeds.

There are stronger railroad tank cars in service, but they are used to carry pressurized liquids, like liquefied petroleum gas and chlorine. The DOT-111s, in contrast, have become workhorses hauling a wide range of liquids, from corn syrup and vegetable oil to nonflammable hazardous liquids like caustic soda and liquid fertilizers. And an estimated one-third of them are now carrying cargo that could catch fire.

The DOT-111 problem burst into view on June 19, 2009, when a train hauling ethanol derailed and exploded in Cherry Valley, Illinois, about 75 miles west of Chicago. The blast and fire killed a passenger in one of the cars stopped at the grade crossing, injured seven other people, forced evacuation of 600 homes, and caused $8 million in damages. Especially haunting: 44-year-old Zoila Tellez died trying to flee, but could not outrun the fireball.

The NTSB determined that railroad operating practices, including problems with track maintenance and inspection programs, caused the accident. But it concluded that the severity of the accident was due to flaws in the DOT-111.

After Cherry Valley, the rail industry adopted a new voluntary standard for the cars. Since 2011, new DOT-111 tank cars have been built with greater puncture resistance, thicker tank material, and improved pressure valves. But after Lac-Mégantic, the rail industry said more improvements were needed.

In a November filing before federal regulators, the Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association urged that all existing DOT-111 tank cars be retrofitted or quickly phased out. For the new (post-2011) cars, the railroads said proposed improvements—steel jackets, head shields, and top-fitting protections—could cut the risk of an accidental spill in half. For older cars, the rail industry said it would cut the risk by 75 percent.

In a rail industry quirk, it is not the railroads that own the tank cars. The majority of cars are owned by leasing companies, who then lease them to the rail customers—the oil and ethanol industries. The initial cost for an overhaul, then, would fall first on the leasing companies, who would then pass the cost along to the oil and ethanol industries. The Railway Supply Institute, representing railcar builders and leasing companies, estimates retrofitting the fleet would cost more than $1 billion.

The oil industry has strongly opposed a forced retrofit or phaseout of old DOT-111s. Such a move would “have the broadest-reaching consequences that the rail industry has ever faced,” the American Petroleum Institute (API), said in a December filing to regulators.

API argued that the DOT-111s “are safe under normal operating conditions,” and regulators should instead focus on railroad maintenance and operation. API noted that broken rails and welds cause the majority of derailments, and that human error also is an important factor. “The best way to limit the impact of a derailment is to prevent a derailment in the first place,” said API.

The oil industry group said retrofitting would strain rail repair shops, which it said already are operating at capacity. Forcing at least 50,000 older tank cars into the shops would have the unintended consequence of backlogging the building of newer cars built to meet the 2011 voluntary standards, the trade group said. (API also argued that the 15,000 or so newer cars should be allowed to stay in service without retrofit, contrary to the rail industry’s argument.)

Adding to the logistical challenge of an overhaul, API said, is the fact that many U.S. railroad car manufacturers have gone out of business.

The potential for new safety regulations to bottleneck booming North American crude oil production is a far greater concern for the oil industry than the cost of new tank hardware, observers say. Rail has served as handmaiden to North Dakota’s rise to number 2 (behind Texas) among U.S. oil-producing states, getting oil to refineries despite lack of pipeline capacity in the prairie. December figures show 69 percent of the crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale is being sent by rail, up from 28 percent in the spring of 2012. And Bakken oil production has roughly doubled over that time to close to one million barrels per day.

“The implication for upstream production . . . and railcar leasing companies is hard to miss,” said Washington, D.C.-based energy policy analyst Kevin Book of Clearview Energy Partners in a report for his clients, also noting oil prices could be affected. “A regulation mandating immediate retrofits or phaseouts has potential to significantly constrain capacity out of the Bakken (where a majority of crude travels by rail), and limit ethanol shipments, too.”

It also is a concern for producers in the remote oil sands of Alberta, Canada, who are increasingly turning to rail. In fact, in its environmental impact statement on the controversial proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline linking Alberta producers with Gulf of Mexico refineries, the U.S. State Department concluded that if the pipeline weren’t built, the oil would get to market anyway—by train. (See related story and interactive map: “Keystone XL Pipeline Path Marks New Battle Line in Oklahoma” and “Keystone XL: Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil.”)

At the Crossroads

A high-stakes regulatory battle affecting the flow of North American oil wasn’t on the radar anyone—and certainly not for Barrington, Illinois—in October 2007. That’s when the big railroad Canadian National (CN) initiated its purchase of the smaller Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern (EJ&E) railway line that arcs around Chicago from Waukegan, Illinois, to Gary, Indiana. CN’s idea was to route trains around the congested city hub. For Barrington, it has meant an increase from three freight trains a day through town to 20.

Map showing Barrington, Illinois

“The irony is that they moved the traffic from a part of downtown (Chicago) that had a lot of overpasses and underpasses,” said Richard Streeter, the Washington, D.C., lawyer representing Barrington and other midwestern rail towns. “That’s not the case on the old EJ&E.” In fact, the trains travel directly in the path of cars and trucks at more than 130 at-grade crossings. Barrington and more than a dozen other communitiesalong the line fought the purchase, raising an array of noise, traffic, and safety issues. But U.S. regulators approved the deal with the caveat that separations be built at two of the grade crossings.

Four months after CN’s purchase of the EJ&E was finalized, the communities were shaken by news of the fatal ethanol train derailment—a CN train on another line—just an hour to the west.

Soon after the NTSB’s findings that the DOT-111 contributed to the Cherry Valley tragedy, on April 3, 2012, Barrington and neighboring rail towns, called the TRAC coalition, filed a petition with U.S. safety regulators, seeking an overhaul of the DOT-111 fleet and real-time information sharing with emergency responders on hazardous car contents. Barrington’s Darch said not much happened with the request for action, though, until the oil train disaster at Lac-Mégantic.

“That literally was a firestorm that ignited the whole debate again,” said Darch, who recently visited the Canadian town to meet and talk to officials who are still grappling with the aftermath. “It really was such a tragedy that it no longer could it be ignored, as it had been for over 20 years.”

In the fall, the U.S. Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) started the process of acting on  Barrington’s proposal and several other long-standing requests for regulatory action on flammable hazards on trains, including four from the NTSB. Even while the agency was accepting comments, two more fiery DOT-111 accidents occurred in North America, on October 19, in Gainford, Alberta, and on November 7, when a shipment of crude oil from North Dakota derailed in Aliceville, Alabama, resulting in a large spill and fire.

Darch said that for towns like Barrington, it will not be enough to have standards for newly built tank cars to be stronger. The older tank cars continue to be a “weak link” that threatens the integrity of all tank cars in an accident, she said.

“The status quo is clearly intolerable for any community that has the misfortune to be on the losing end of fate,” said Barrington and the TRAC coalition in their comments filed with PHMSA, likening their plight to “a game of Russian roulette.”

“However, it is not the shippers or railroads or leasing companies looking down the barrel of the DOT-111 revolver,” they said. “It is the communities that have absolutely no power to get up and walk away from the danger.”

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Letter from Kamala Harris, California Attorney General

The California Attorney General office has weighed in on the failures of the Pittsburg WesPac recirculated EIR.  This could be important for us in Benicia.  See Ltr to POLLOT 1-15-2014 date revised

Marilyn Bardet writes that this letter “gets at the lack of cumulative analysis of emissions impacts and other potentially catastrophic risks to Pittsburg residents in the immediate vicinity of WesPac’s proposed terminal, but also, the ‘cumulatively considerable’ impacts (the fallout, including exponentially increasing risk to public health and safety) of delivering increasing quantities of ‘extreme crudes’ for processing at Bay Area refineries.”

The Attorney General’s letter is useful to us in Benicia as we prepare our remarks and comments for the Draft EIR on the Valero Crude by Rail proposal.

Marilyn also pointed out another example of a discussion of how to account for cumulative impacts, an excerpt from a DEIR review of “Grizzly Bluff Natural Gas Field Development Project” in Humbolt County:

Thanks, Marilyn!

Cities Grapple With Oil-Train Safety

Repost from The Wall Street Journal

Recent Derailments Raise Concerns Over North Dakota Crude Traveling by Rail Through Cities


Jan. 14, 2014 11:02 p.m. ET
A train carrying crude oil collided with another train and caught fire on Dec. 30 near Casselton, N.D. The Forum/Associated Press

Every day, a train more than a mile long travels alongside a highway in Albany, N.Y., a half-mile from the state capitol building and even closer to houses. Its cargo is crude oil from North Dakota, which federal regulators and railroads fear is more explosive than other oils.

In the past year, Albany has become an unlikely hub for the U.S. oil business, taking in shipments by rail and sending them out by ship down the Hudson River to refineries. Now officials there are trying to get up to speed on how to handle a potential oil-train accident, as are their peers from Chicago to Denver to New Orleans.

wsj image rr officials don't llike to talk

Bakken crude, which has been involved in three major explosions after rail accidents in the past seven months, is traveling to every corner of the country: west into Washington state and then south to refineries near Los Angeles; south to Gulf Coast refiners; north into Canada; and east to refineries in New Jersey and Philadelphia.

Railroads and oil shippers wouldn’t detail oil-train movements through their networks, citing security concerns. The Wall Street Journal identified routes through investor presentations and industry marketing material, as well as interviews with industry officials and experts.

The four major freight railroads involved— Union Pacific Corp. , BNSF Railway Co., Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. and Canadian National Railway Co. —all said they were sharing information about hazardous shipments with local emergency responders. Crude oil is classified as a hazardous substance.

Some critics worry about local preparedness. The growth in crude moving on railroads “came out of the blue,” said Peter Iwanowicz, a former head of New York state’s environmental agency and now executive director of a watchdog group called Environmental Advocates of New York.

“We’re not an oil-patch state,” he said. Officials may be aware of the oil trains, he added, “but are they prepared? I don’t believe so.”

John Layton, a captain in the Albany County Office of Emergency Management, said his agency recently met with Canadian Pacific and Global Partners LP, the storage and distribution firm that is shipping North Dakota crude through New York state.

“The crude trains are very big and carry a lot of potential fuel,” Mr. Layton said. “It has the potential to burn a long time.”

Global Partners, a public company based in Waltham, Mass., declined to comment.

Two local officials said Chicago, the largest rail hub in the U.S., might not be prepared for an oil-train accident. On Monday, Chicago Aldermen Edward Burke and Matthew O’Shea proposed levying a fee on every oil-filled railcar that passes through the city, to build up a fund that could be tapped in case of a derailment or fire in the city. Local officials can’t bar oil trains, which are regulated by the federal government.

Some cities say they are ready for the oil-train influx. One is Tacoma, Wash., where the fire department says it has a plan, personnel and equipment, but worries about suburban and rural fire departments.

The three explosions stemming from recent oil-train derailments include a July accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that incinerated the downtown and left 47 people dead. An oil train caught fire in Alabama in November, and a Dec. 30 accident in rural North Dakota sent towering flames into the sky. Neither of those two caused injuries.

Concerns about emergency responders helped prompt the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, to warn that Bakken oil appeared to be more volatile than other crudes, which can burn but seldom have exploded. Dominique Dostie, a firefighter who fought the Lac-Mégantic blaze, said it took 30 hours of applying special foam to extinguish it.

“When emergency responders look at crude, they are thinking of a heavy crude that just sits there and is hard to ignite,” said Cynthia Quarterman, head of the federal agency, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The PHMSA is investigating whether Bakken crude might contain large amounts of gases and related liquids such as butane, propane and ethane.

At the American Petroleum Institute, “We look forward to reviewing PHMSA’s findings as part of a continuing effort to improve the safety of rail transportation,” said a spokesman, Brian Straessle.

New regulations that could require the industry to improve, phase out or retrofit tank cars used to haul some crude oil are over a year away, according to a schedule the Transportation Department published Tuesday.

The U.S. and Canada both have large refineries on their coasts to handle imported crude oil. Over the past five years, U.S. companies began pumping more oil from the landlocked midcontinent, and the industry has developed new ways of moving it to refineries.

The most common new mode is rail, which is handling about 750,000 barrels a day from North Dakota—more oil than comes out of the giant Alaska North Slope oil field.

New crude-by-rail projects have been proposed across the country. In New York, state officials said they have received applications from Global Partners to build another rail-to-river facility capable of handling one train a day in New Windsor, N.Y., about 65 miles up the Hudson from New York City.

In Vancouver, Wash., refiner Tesoro Corp. and logistics firm Savage Cos. have proposed building a railroad terminal that could handle 360,000 barrels a day, twice the size of the oil terminal in Albany.

Barry Cain, lead developer of Columbia Waterfront LLC, a $1.3 billion real-estate revitalization project in Vancouver with space 100 feet from the tracks, said he supports robust U.S. oil production but fears the trains would endanger residents. “What if one derails?” he asked. “There is no margin of error with these things.”

The general manager of the proposed new rail terminal, Jared Larrabee, said it and waterfront development can co-exist. “We believe the region can and should have both,” he said.

Vancouver Fire Dept. Battalion Chief Steve Eldred said hazardous-materials response plans are in place for existing train traffic, but would need to be studied and probably require additional resources to handle more oil trains.

Others say while the liquid cargo is labeled as crude, it is exploding like jet fuel. The North Dakota crude “has a tremendous amount volatility and puts out a lot of heat,” said Dennis Jenkerson, the fire chief for St. Louis.

“We train for this every year, and you prepare for the worst,” he said. “My biggest concern is that this crude is coming through the area and we really don’t know what it is.”

—Chester Dawson, Ben Kesling and Betsy Morris contributed to this article.  Write to Russell Gold at and Lynn Cook at

California expects more crude oil by rail, seeks to beef up spill response

Repost from the Sacramento Bee:

California expects more crude oil by rail, seeks to beef up spill response

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau
Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 – 11:17 pm


Railroad tank cars are unloaded on a loop track at a refinery in Delaware City, Delaware.   Curtis Tate / MCT
Railroad tank cars are unloaded on a loop track at a refinery in Delaware City, Delaware. Curtis Tate / MCT

WASHINGTON   Wary of a series of fiery train derailments elsewhere in North America, California officials are bracing for a huge increase in the amount of crude oil transported by rail into the state and the dangers it brings with it.

The state budget plan Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled this week bolsters the state Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, increasing its budget by $6.7 million and adding 38 staff members, “to address the increased risk of inland oil spills.

The move comes as California’s Energy Commission projects that rail deliveries of crude oil could increase to as much of a quarter of the state’s total by 2016. In 2012, only 0.2 percent of the 598 million barrels of oil received by state refiners came by rail, according to the commission. Nearly two-thirds arrived by ocean-going vessels, and another third by pipeline.

Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which includes the oil spill unit, said the state is preparing for a shift in deliveries by more traditional modes to rail, and the risks associated with it.

“We’ve exceeded pipeline capacity, and that distribution is now shifting to rail,” he said. “In California, that change means we may see less of our oil coming in through marine terminals and more by rail into the state.”

The volume of crude oil shipped by rail has increased exponentially in just the past few years, and many state and federal agencies are scrambling to adjust their emergency response plans. Trains brought about 3 million barrels of oil to California last year. In two years, it could be 143 million.

Especially worrisome is oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region, which federal officials have come to believe is more flammable than the more conventional oils California produces or imports. And most of the railroad tank cars that carry it to California and other states have proved vulnerable to ruptures or punctures in a derailment.

In July, an unattended crude oil train derailed and exploded in the lakeside town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. A similar train derailed in Alabama in November, followed by another in North Dakota last month. Though both accidents resulted in spectacular fires and limited evacuations, no one was injured or killed.

The rail industry and its Washington regulators insist that railroads have a good safety record. The Association of American Railroads, an industry group, says 99.997 percent of hazardous materials shipped by rail reach their destination without incident. The Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees the nation’s rail network, said 2012 was the industry’s safest year on record.

Initially, rail was a stopgap measure taken as proposed pipeline expansions encountered delays. But producers discovered its advantages. Though it costs more to ship by rail than by pipeline, it’s faster, has more capacity and can go pretty much anywhere pipelines don’t.

Crude oil is already moving into California by rail. BNSF Railway, the nation’s largest rail carrier of crude oil, now hauls entire trainloads from North Dakota to refineries in Richmond and Bakersfield. Though the shipments are infrequent, plans are in the works to enable six more locations in California to refine oil brought in by train or transfer it to ships or pipelines. If all are completed, five or six 80- to 100-car trains a day would supply about 25 percent of the state’s oil needs.

Bonham said the 245-member oil-spill unit is adapting to a shifting risk. To fund its expansion, the agency will begin collecting a fee of 6.5 cents a barrel to all crude oil shipped to refineries. Currently the fee only applies to marine shipments. Bonham predicts rail will largely displace tankers coming from Alaska or foreign countries.

The largest chemical spill in state history was the result of a rail accident. In July 1991, a Southern Pacific freight train derailed near the northern California town of Dunsmuir, with one tank car spilling 19,000 gallons of a pesticide into the Sacramento River. The toxic green chemical created a vapor cloud that made residents ill and killed a million fish in a 42-mile stretch of contaminated river.

One tank car can carry about 30,000 gallons of crude oil. Canadian authorities estimate that the train that derailed in Quebec spilled 1.5 million gallons, leaving an environmental catastrophe as well as a human one.

BNSF and Union Pacific, the state’s other major railroad, plan to increase their shipments of crude oil to the state in unit trains. Both railroads operate trains through downtown Sacramento and the state’s other major population centers and along its major waterways, creating new potential hazards for communities and the environment.

“It’s not going to be just one car,” said Tom Cullen, administrator of the state oil-spill unit. “We know it’s going to be more.”

California officials say they’ve dealt with large amounts of oil spilled from marine vessels and inland wells.

“We’re not going through this blindly,” Cullen said. “We appreciate what we’re taking on.”

What does worry them, however, is Bakken crude’s flammability.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration last week warned that the oil is more hazardous than others and should be handled with extra care. The tendency of older, less protected tank cars to fail in derailments has compounded the concern. Some members of Congress and the rail industry are pushing regulators to move faster on new standards for tank car construction.

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