oil by rail

LNG-By-Rail Hits Tracks in Alaska: What Are the Risks and Why the Secrecy?

Alaska Railroad train engine

For the first time ever, liquefied natural gas (LNG) has been shipped by railroad in the U.S., prompting concerns about risks of accidents and a lack of state or federal regulation for the new and hazardous cargo.

The 40-foot long cryogenic tanks owned by the Japanese company Hitachi, built to be transported by rail, truck, and barge, will each carry more than 7,000 gallons of natural gas, which has been chilled down to negative 260 degrees Fahrenheit, from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska. The company Alaska Railroad will do the carrying.

Ruling by Little-Known Federal Agency Paves Way for Communities to Say No to Oil-by-Rail

Oil tank care behind a fence with sign reading 'Think first'

The community of Benicia, [California,] in the crosshairs of history, made one of those decisions that will make a difference for the country. They stood up and said the safety of our communities matters.” 

That was Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor talking to The Sacramento Bee about the vote by the Benicia City Council to deny a new oil-by-rail facility that oil company Valero was seeking.

But that vote would have been meaningless if not for a recent decision on September 20 by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) that gave Benicia the legal authority to have some say over what happens within its borders. 

Overloaded: New Rules Allowed for Heavier Bakken Oil Trains

DOT-111 as part of ethanol unit train

This is the third article in a series looking at why oil trains derail at higher rates than ethanol trains. More ethanol was moved by rail from 2010–2015 than oil, but oil trains derail at a higher rate and with more severe consequences. Part one addressed train length as a factor and part two addressed “sloshing.” 

On January 25, 2011, a notice appeared in the Federal Register announcing a change in the rules on allowable weight for a rail tank car transporting hazardous materials. It declared the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) approval to increase this weight limit, bumping it up to 286,000 pounds gross rail load (GRL) from the previous limit of 263,000 pounds.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but this rule change was well-timed for the Bakken oil-by-rail boom that was taking off at that point. Regardless, it had immediate impacts on the ability of the industry to move oil in long unit trains with cars that were heavier than previously allowed. 

Why Do Oil Trains Derail More Often than Ethanol Trains?

Unit train of graffiti covered DOT-111 tank cars.

This is part two in a DeSmog investigative series examining why oil trains derail at higher rates than ethanol trains. More ethanol was moved by rail from 2010-2015 than oil, but oil trains derail at a higher rate and with more severe consequences. Part one addressed train length as a potential factor in derailments

“Sloshing is an issue. It increases in-train forces. It would be like having a heavy box in the back of your SUV that is not tied down. If you have to slam on the brakes, what happens? The box slides forward into the back of the seat in front of it.” 

That was former locomotive engineer and rail safety consultant Bill Keppen describing the effects of “sloshing,” a phenomenon which happens when the liquid contents of incompletely filled rail tank cars start to move — or “slosh” — back and forth during transport. According to Keppen and others in the rail industry, that can potentially increase the chance of a train derailing. 

Rail Industry Requests Massive Loophole in Oil-by-Rail Safety To Extend Bomb Trains Well Beyond 2025

In the most recent oil-by-rail accident in Mosier, Oregon the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) concluded that the tank cars involved — the jacketed CPC-1232 type — “performed as expected.” So an oil train derailing at the relatively slow speed of 25 mph should be “expected” to have breached cars resulting in fiery explosions.

Current regulations allow those tank cars to continue rolling on the track carrying volatile Bakken crude oil and ethanol until 2025 with no modifications.

Yet industry lobbying group the Railway Supply Institute (RSI) has now requested the Federal Railroad Administration to essentially allow these jacketed CPC-1232 tank cars to remain on the tracks for decades beyond 2025.

This was just one of the troubling facts that came to light at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) roundtable on tank car safety on July 13th, and perhaps the one of greatest concern to anyone living in an oil train blast zone like Mosier, Oregon.  

Green PR Firm EnviroIssues Secretly Working For Oil And Petrochemical Industry

This is a guest post by Eric de Place and Nick Abraham, originally published by The Sightline Institute as part of their series Look Who's Taking Oil and Coal Money

Consulting firm EnviroIssues is a longstanding fixture of the Northwest’s sustainability community. Known mostly for its work with local governments, the company is generally well respected and considered “a white hat” in a field liberally populated with unscrupulous characters. Of themselves, EnviroIssues says: “Our names says it all—we help make the natural and built communities where we live, work, and play better places by tackling some of the thorniest public policy and environmental issues of our day.”

Unfortunately, EnviroIssues’ green reputation is undeserved. The firm in fact works for several controversial oil and petrochemical companies, shepherding them through the environmental reviews that communities and decision makers depend on to assess projects’ local impacts. These include the highly controversial Tacoma methanol proposal and major oil-by-rail projects at Vancouver and Grays Harbor, Washington.

What’s more, Sightline’s research uncovered a troubling pattern of potential conflicts of interest. The firm’s unusual access to government agencies could allow it to grease the skids for some of the Northwest’s most controversial fossil fuel projects.

Luck Rides The Rails: Another Near Miss with an "Insane" Bakken Oil Bomb Train

Luck was in abundance on Friday in Mosier, Oregon where the latest Bakken oil train derailed and erupted into flames near a 50-home residential area and a school. 

As Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton said, “Mosier really dodged a bullet in the last 24 hours.”

“I hope that this becomes death knell for this mode of shipping this cargo. I think it’s insane,” Appleton said. “I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now, but with this incident, and with all due respect to the wonderful people that I’ve met at Union Pacific, shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.”

It's a familiar story to those following the Bakken oil “bomb train” saga — luck.

If I had been there another second, it’d probably have killed me,” Bounds said. “Glass was flying everywhere behind me. The walls were caving in. I hadn’t run like that in years.”

That was Morris Bounds describing to The Spokesman Review how he barely escaped the derailing Bakken oil train that destroyed his home in Mount Carbon, West Virginia in February 2015. He literally saw the train derailing and ran out his front door as the train wiped out his house behind him. 

You don’t get much luckier than Morris Bounds. Or his wife, who happened to be in the hospital that day instead of at home. 

Later that year when another Bakken oil train derailed in a residential neighborhood in Watertown, Wisconsin but did not ignite, Sarah Feinberg, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, declared, “We feel we got really lucky.”  

Positive Train Control, Critical Rail Safety Improvement, Delayed for Decades

In the recent New York Times article “The Wreck of Amtrak 188” Federal Railroad Administration leader Sarah Feinberg explained the advantages of the rail safety technology known as positive train control (PTC).
“I’ll describe it to you this way,” Feinberg said. “If a train is traveling in an area where P.T.C. isn’t in place and working as a backstop, you’ve got a situation where an engineer has to execute everything perfectly every hour, every day, every week. All the time. Because the slightest, smallest lapse can mean disaster.”
The general consensus is that the Amtrak 188 train crash — which caused eight fatalities — would have been avoided if positive train control was in place. The system would have slowed the train automatically so that it didn’t head into a hard curve going much too fast.
But despite the fact PTC was first recommended as a safety measure by the National Transportation Safety Board in 1970, the railroads have failed to install positive train control. So the smallest lapse can mean disaster.

Nationwide Resistance To Crude Oil ‘Bomb Trains’ Gaining Momentum

The speed and scale with which the oil and rail industries created the North American oil-by-rail infrastructure was impressive. And amazingly under the radar for the most part — until the trains started derailing and blowing up — leading to articles with titles like “The Invisible Bomb Trains.
In 2014, Terry Wechsler, an environmental attorney in northwest Washington, summed up why there hadn’t been opposition to the initial oil-by-rail terminals on the west coast, telling Reuters, “There was no opposition to the other three proposals only because we weren't aware they were in formal permitting.”
But now the public knows. And despite public relations efforts by regulators and industry lobbyists, the public also knows that the crude oil “bomb trains” still pose a huge risk to communities along the rail lines.

There Will Be Blood - Oil Train Regulations Fail To Address Known Risks

Railroad rules have been written in blood.” This line was included in the annual report of the Commissioner of Railroads for the state of Michigan — in 1901. The idea was that safety rules were only implemented when enough blood had been spilled.

One hundred and fifteen years later, in an opinion piece on rail safety for CNN, rail expert Fred Failey essentially said the same thing, opening his piece with the statement, “The rules by which trains operate on American railroads were written in blood.”

When it comes to the rules regarding oil trains in America, many regulations that would improve safety have yet to be written. One reason is that, despite the multiple oil train crashes resulting in massive explosions in the past several years, there have been no fatalities in America.


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