Virginians concerned about explosions, spills near Chesapeake Bay

Repost from The Daily Press, Hampton Roads, Virginia

Crude oil tanker trains to Yorktown ignite controversy

Three derailments, explosions in U.S. and Canada in past six months highlight dangers

 April 05, 2014|By Tamara Dietrich,

Virginia environmentalists and activists are worried that an uptick in tanker trains carrying petroleum crude oil to a new storage and shipping hub in Yorktown is a recipe for disaster.

At issue is crude oil from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota — the same crude that’s been implicated in derailments and explosions over the past several months from Quebec to Alabama, and is now being shipped by rail through heavily populated and environmentally sensitive areas of the commonwealth.

“These trains are traveling through Lynchburg along the James River through Richmond and on to the York County facility on the York River,” said Glen Besa of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. “We’re concerned that a train derailment could result in an explosion and the loss of life, or an oil spill that could jeopardize our drinking water supplies and the environment.”

The group says tanker trains carrying Bakken crude began arriving in Yorktown in December, and is calling on the public and first-responders to be aware of the risks associated with those trains and ensure measures are in place to prevent accidents and, if necessary, effectively respond to them.

Meanwhile, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is calling on the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard to take action to reduce the risk of a devastating spill in the vulnerable estuary as “dramatically” increasing amounts of crude oil are likely to roll into Yorktown in the coming years, then get barged out again to East Coast refineries.

The bay is “on borrowed time in the face of a major oil spill,” CBF President William C. Baker said in a recent letter to Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr.

Safety a priority

The storage depot is the former Yorktown Refinery, a 600-acre facility that for decades converted crude oil into gasoline and other fuels. It closed in 2010 and cost the county one of its biggest industries and tax sources.

Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline LP bought the facility for $220 million in 2011, and over the past two years spent $150 million to convert it to a transportation terminal, according to spokesman Brad Leone and news reports.

“Plains made a significant investment to expand and modernize the existing rail and dock infrastructure, which has made the facility even safer and more efficient,” Leone said.

The Yorktown Terminal supports 90 full-time jobs, he said, and has the capacity to unload 140,000 barrels a day and store 6 million barrels.

CSX Transportation, based in Jacksonville, Fla., provides rail service to the terminal as part of its 23-state network.

“CSX appreciates that the shipment of energy products is a topic of concern for citizens here in Virginia and across the country,” said spokeswoman Melanie Cost, adding that the company places the “highest priority” on community safety.

Most of its crude oil shipments originate in the Bakken region, she said.

The risk

After three train derailments and explosions in six months involving crude from the Bakken Shale region, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety alert in January that this crude “may be more flammable” than other types of oil. The PHMSA is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Last July, an oil train carrying Bakken crude derailed and ignited a catastrophic explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people, leveling the small town and causing more than $1 billion in damages.

In November, a 90-car crude oil train was traveling through a rural part of Alabama when 20 cars derailed and 11 of them exploded. An unknown amount of crude fouled nearby wetlands, and damage was estimated at nearly $4 million.

Then, in December, a crude-oil train collided with a derailed grain car in North Dakota. Of the 21 oil cars that derailed, 18 ruptured and exploded. About 400,000 gallons of crude were released into the environment, and 1,400 residents had to be evacuated. Damage was estimated at $8 million.

In response, the DOT issued an amended emergency order last month directed at companies that offer petroleum crude oil and carry it by rail.

The Bakken formation has become “a major source for oil production” in this country, the order noted, and the risk of flammability is compounded because crude oil is commonly shipped in bulk on large unit trains.

The Congressional Research Service reported to Congress in February that shipping more crude oil on bigger trains increases the risk of accidents and the size of the resulting fires and explosions.

The controversial Keystone Pipeline would service the Bakken formation, but it is unknown if that pipeline will ever be built. If large tanker trains are used instead, federal agencies project about 49 more injuries and six more deaths each year.

Force a fix

In its emergency order, the DOT requires that bulk quantities of crude oil be properly tested and classed, and be treated as a hazardous material when shipped in rail tank cars. It also forbids deliberate misclassification.