This Washington, that Washington on Crude Oil by Rail
Posted April 30, 2014
This afternoon brought news of another fiery crude oil train derailment. Luckily no one was hurt in the Lynchburg, Virginia accident, but flames were shooting up as high as the 19th floor of one bystander’s office building, oil was spilling into the James River and hundreds have been evacuated. The billowing black plumes of smoke serve as a warning not just to the 77,000 people living in Lynchburg but to everyone living near rail lines or terminals that the growing transport of long crude oil trains is incredibly dangerous.
It’s not clear that mile long crude oil trains can ever be made safe, but they are upon us, so while we are fighting to keep them out of communities, we better make every effort to improve the situation. This blog includes notes on the National Transportation Safety Board Rail Safety Forum on the Transportation of Crude Oil and Ethanol in Washington D.C. last week from Fred Millar, a well-known rail safety expert; and a summary of fieldwork from a leading activist, Matt Landon, who is oil trainspotting in Washington State. (What is oil trainspotting?)
The NTSB Forum in DC last week was packed with industry shippers and carriers, technical, policy, emergency response and regulatory experts, all talking about hazardous materials transportation issues and crude oil train derailments disasters. From that discussion, the top two strategies to address these safety risks involve federal regulations: (1) Ordering a fast retrofit of existing tank cars with a strong safety standard, and a similarly strong standard for new tank cars; and (2) re-routing the unit trains around major cities.
As far as the tank cars go, NTSB Chairman Hersman noted that federal agencies could use emergency powers to quickly issue safety-forcing Emergency Orders and even Interim Final Regulations. She recounted an expeditious federal action in the 1970's, when the DOT ordered speedy retrofits of pressurized "jumbo" tank cars DOT-112A and DOT-114A that experienced dangerous failures.
In February 1978, a rail tanker explosion killed 16, in Waverly, TN. Less than a year later, in January 1979 the DOT Secretary reported that nearly all of the defective tanker cars had been retrofitted, and soon thereafter it was obvious that the package of three railcar retrofit devices had reduced serious pressurized railcar releases significantly. During that rulemaking process, it’s important to note that although the industry warned that only four shops could do railcar retrofits and they would take 3 days each, the NTSB ultimately found that 100 shops could retrofit tank cars, and each would take 93 minutes.
So, technically and politically, rail tanker cars can be retrofitted or replaced quickly. And in the case of the puncture-prone DOT-111 tanker cars now used to carry significant amounts of crude oil, speed is called for in their replacement as well. According to researcher, Dr. David Jeong of DOT, using sophisticated models, the "legacy" DOT-111 tank cars are estimated to spill their contents in an accident over 25 percent of the time, whereas other models are less likely to breach in an accident. For example, COC-1232 tanker cars with full height head shields are estimated to breach in only 6 percent of accidents; and the proposed new design for more robust tanker cars with a thicker shell would only breach in 4 percent of accidents. While imperfect, these newer designs are clearly much safer and should be phased in immediately.
It remains to be seen what this week’s expected federal proposal on rail car safety will bring. In the meantime, the Canadian government announced last week that industry must – at its own cost - replace 5,000 DOT-111 tanker cars within 30 days, and another 65,000 DOT-111 cars must be removed or retrofitted within three years.
This is a significant step, although three years is a long time to wait, and the regulations do not address re-routing of trains around cities. In Canada, however, the railroads will have to provide hazmat rail flow information to local emergency responders (note: the public still will not have access to this). The US has no such requirement on the railroads. Also, to make matters worse, the current "routing selection tools" used by railroads in the U.S. are not disclosed to anyone and receive minimal government oversight. Railroads and governments have blocked any effort to keep dangerous trains away from the most populated areas by keeping the routing secret and unaccountable, unmeasured as to effectiveness.
How can emergency responders deal with crude oil rail accidents? A panel concluded that the best tactic is to let a derailment burn, pull back, and take a "defensive posture". Emergency responders were clear that the ongoing crude oil rail disasters are beyond their capabilities to handle. "Even with an infinite amount of costly foam", letting them burn is the only sensible approach (and this is what was done in Lynchburg this afternoon). They note that major derailments would require enormous amounts of foam, there is not enough water to apply it especially in rural areas, and anyway, they cannot get close enough to the fires to apply it. Derailments in urban areas would pose significant operating risks that go well beyond current operational capabilities for emergency responders.
In the meantime, Matt Landon with the Vancouver Action Network, set out to find whether crude oil trains are leaking fumes in the other Washington – State, that is. This past month, Matt initiated the Washington State Train Watch 2014 covering Spokane, the Columbia River Gorge, Washougal, Camas, Vancouver, Fruit Valley, and Everett, recording the number of oil and coal trains coming through these communities. Using a FLIR Gasfindir GF320 hydrocarbon viewing video camera, this footage of air emissions from a train carrying crude oil thought to be from the North Dakota Bakken was posted. Watching this video makes you wonder who is monitoring the air emissions from leaky crude oil trains, how much is leaking, who is exposed and how dangerous is it?
Back in Washington D.C., waiting for an announcement on new rail safety measures from U.S. DOT, Fred Millar provided more information from the rail safety forum. Participants in the NTSB Forum recognize the scope and seriousness of the Crude by Rail issues, given that 80 percent of the 1 million barrels per day of Bakken crude oil produced is shipped by rail, and production is growing, yet there is no single silver bullet to address the rail safety risks.
In addition to the need for improved tanker cars and routing discussed above, there are additional improvements that can be made to rail operations and to emergency response.
One key factor in train derailments that influences the extent of damage is speed. The models that predict failure rates of tank cars during derailments use an "average accident" speed of 27 mph. Yet, even the NTSB Chair Hersman pointed out that it is not realistic, given the higher speeds seen in some of the serious derailments in recent years and the fact that the new standard adopted by the railroads on routes outside of major cities is 50 mph. Reducing train speeds would be one effective strategy to reduce risk of catastrophic derailments.
It is also essential to strengthen emergency response capabilities. No one at the Forum asked or speculated on what would it cost if railroads paid for adequate emergency preparedness or if FRA increased their oversight in any serious way. The scale of the needs here is vast, given that there are an estimated 2 million firefighters, 80% of which are volunteers, and 20% of those turn over every year. They all need hazmat training and appropriate resources to respond in any real way to a unit crude oil train accident.
Finally, in order for emergency responders to do their jobs, they need to know what substance they are dealing with during an accident. Full disclosure of tanker train contents and characteristics is essential. Communities also have a right to know this information about the mile long trains hurtling through their neighborhood, but this was never even mentioned during the Forum.
The residents of Lynchburg, Virginia and thousands of others who have witnessed the devastation of crude oil train derailments over the past year probably join me in wondering whether the federal government is going to do anything to keep these dangerous oil trains out of communities, or try to make those tanker trains safer, or make the trains slow down, or provide adequate emergency response resources, or… anything. How many more fiery derailments will it take to act?
Full notes of Fred Millar are available to community, public health and safety advocates upon request.
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