oil by rail

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.

New York Attorney General Petitions Government for Oil-by-Rail Volatility Standard

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s recent petition to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to require oil producers to stabilize oil before it is shipped by rail is a detailed 30-page document. However, the essence of the document is summed up in a single sentence (found on page 24).

Without rulemaking on vapor pressure, current Federal standards will not prevent high intensity fires and explosions in future train accidents.”

Vapor pressure is a characteristic of oil used to quantify oil’s volatility and is correlated to the amount of natural gas liquids present in the crude oil mixture. The more natural gas liquids, the higher the vapor pressure.

The high percentage of natural gas liquids (e.g. propane and butane) in the Bakken oil are what make it so volatile and flammable.

As repeatedly noted by DeSmog, with the new regulations failing to address the volatility of the oil, the risk of “bomb train” accidents remains.

The Flipside of Accuracy: NPR Report on Oil and Ethanol Train Derailments Full of Industry Talking Points

Derailment by Sarah Zarling

On November 7th, a train carrying ethanol in DOT-111 tank cars derailed in Wisconsin, resulting in rail cars rupturing and a spill of 18,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River.

The next day, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in a residential area in Watertown, Wisconsin, resulting in a spill of around 1,000 gallons of oil.

These two spills provide another stark reminder of the dangers of moving oil and ethanol along waterways and through residential areas.

It also apparently provided an opportunity for National Public Radio (NPR) to push multiple oil and rail industry talking points. And the article on NPR's website notes NPR is sponsored by America's Natural Gas (ANGA). 

Risky Shale Oil-by-Rail Expands Despite Lack of Spill Response Preparedness

The worst onshore oil spill in United States history was the Kalamazoo River tar sands pipeline spill in 2010 with estimates of one million gallons of oil spilled. In comparison, the oil-by-rail accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec was 50% bigger.

With the oil-by-rail industry proposing large expansions to West Coast destinations, it is understandable that some local communities are worried about the risks of a spill causing major environmental damage and threatening human health.

Shutdown Spin: Oil and Coal Industries Confident Congress Will Concede to Rail Industry

When it comes to effective lobbying groups, the American Petroleum Institute has to be near the top of the list with its relentless quest to preserve oil company profits at all costs. However, with the current threat of a rail shutdown over the rail industry’s failure to implement positive train control (PTC), which would effectively shut down much of North Dakota’s Bakken oil production, the API isn’t getting involved.  

Apparently they aren’t worried. As masters of the game of spinning stories for profit, perhaps the API knows a good bit of spin when it sees one.

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