Bomb Trains

Wed, 2014-09-17 08:59Justin Mikulka
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Bomb Trains Keep Rolling While Congressional Committee Bickers About Bakken Crude

Congressman Paul Broun

When DeSmogBlog reported last week that no actual petroleum scientists would be testifying at the congressional science committee’s hearing on the characteristics of Bakken crude oil, we knew the hearing was unlikely to make any substantial progress toward improving the safety of transporting this volatile oil on trains through American communities.    

Indeed, we expected the hearing would be an exercise in avoiding getting the facts about Bakken crude to further delay or avoid regulations that would require the oil to be stabilized. But what actually transpired surprised even us and bordered on the absurd.

While the hearing was conducted under the banner of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, it was co-chaired by Subcommittee on Energy chairman Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Subcommittee on Oversight chairman Paul Broun (R-Ga.)

During his opening remarks, Congressman Broun ripped into the Obama administration for denying his attempts to get “experts in the subject matter” as witnesses.

While I look forward to hearing from both panels today, I must say I am disappointed — though not surprised — at this Administration’s continued unwillingness to work with the Congress. Chairman Lummis and I invited representatives from the agencies who are experts in the subject matter because we are interested in the science behind Bakken crude. Instead, both agencies appearing before the Committee today declined to provide the witnesses we requested, sending us in their place witnesses more knowledgeable on the politics behind Bakken crude. As I said, I am not surprised, just disappointed.

Fri, 2014-09-05 13:30Justin Mikulka
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Safety of Citizens in Bomb Train Blast Zones in Hands of North Dakota Politicians

Lac Megantic train explosion

When North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer was asked recently if it was scientifically possible to make Bakken crude oil safer by stripping out the explosive natural gas liquids with a process like oil stabilization, his response was quite telling.

So scientifically can you do it? Sure, but you have to look at it holistically and consider all of the other elements including economics, and is the benefit of doing something like that does that trump other things like speed of trains, and what kind of cars,” he said.

This is very similar to the comments made by Lynn Helms of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources according to the July 29 meeting minutes provided to DeSmogBlog by the Industrial Commission of North Dakota.

In response to a question regarding other mechanisms besides oil conditioning in the field, Mr. Helms stated there are other mechanisms — none of them without a significant downside….It makes sense to do the conditioning in the field. There are other options to do it downstream somewhere in a very large and very expensive operation.”

Wed, 2014-08-20 07:00Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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Big Rail Cites Bin Laden, Al Qaeda to Fend Off Oil-by-Rail Route Transparency

While many states around the U.S. have released information to the public about the frequency and routes of trains carrying oil obtained from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin, holdouts still remain. 

Why the delay? Homeland security concerns, claim some companies. 

In an ongoing Maryland court case over the issue of transparency for in-state oil-by-rail routes, a July 23 affidavit from Carl E. Carbaugh — director of infrastructure security for Norfolk Southern — goes into extensive detail about the supposed risk presented by terrorism attacks on “Bomb Trains.” 

In so doing, Carbaugh mentions Al-Qaeda. 

The most recent edition of Inspire magazine, March 2014, the online, English-language propaganda publication of [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], presents a full-page collage depicting varied images…in order to construct an explosive device,” reads Carbaugh’s affidavit

Among these images are a derailed passenger train and a partly covered note paper listing cities in the [U.S.] as well as the terms ‘Dakota’ and ‘Train crude oil.’” 

Carbaugh also cited Osama bin Laden, the late Al-Qaeda international ring-leader, in his affidavit.

Among the materials seized in the May 1, 2011, raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, were notes indicating interest in ‘tipping’ or ‘toppling’ trains — that is causing their derailment,” Carbaugh wrote.

Osama Bin Laden Compound Diagram; Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tue, 2014-08-19 12:32Justin Mikulka
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Report Reveals Cost Cutting Measures At Heart Of Lac-Megantic Oil Train Disaster

Today the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) released its final report on the July 6th, 2013 train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The report produced a strong reaction from Keith Stewart, Greenpeace Canada’s Climate and Energy Campaign coordinator.

This report is a searing indictment of Transport Canada’s failure to protect the public from a company that they knew was cutting corners on safety despite the fact that it was carrying increasing amounts of hazardous cargo. This lax approach to safety has allowed the unsafe transport of oil by rail to continue to grow even after the Lac Megantic disaster. It is time for the federal government to finally put community safety ahead of oil and rail company profits or we will see more tragedies, Stewart said.”

Throughout the report there is ample evidence to support Stewart’s position and plenty to show why the people of Lac-Megantic want the CEO of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), the rail company responsible for the accident, held accountable in place of the engineer and other low level employees currently facing charges.

At the press conference for the release of the report the TSB representatives often noted that they had found 18 factors that contributed to the actual crash and they were not willing to assign blame to anyone, claiming that wasn’t their role.

But several critical factors stand out and they are the result of MMA putting profits ahead of safety and Transport Canada (TC), the Canadian regulators responsible for overseeing rail safety, failing to do its job.

Thu, 2014-08-14 06:00Justin Mikulka
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Oil Industry Study Claiming Bakken Crude Safe Contains Whopper of a Disclaimer

casselton bomb train explosion

On December 30, 2013, a train carrying Bakken crude oil crashed in Casselton, North Dakota resulting in a massive explosion. 

In January of 2014, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) released their preliminary testing results stating that Bakken crude from North Dakota was more explosive than other crude oils. PHMSA is a part of the Department of Transportation (DOT), the regulatory agency that has ultimate responsibility for any new oil-by-rail regulations.

Then the Wall Street Journal published a study showing the same thing. And now PHMSA has released further data proving this fact — Bakken crude is more volatile and prone to explode. However, the North Dakota Petroleum Council has done a study of their own claiming Bakken crude oil is no different from any other crude oils. And yet, they also include the following disclaimer in their study.

“making the claim that vapor pressure and light ends content correlates to increased ignitability and flammability is a broad statement that without extensive and complicated testing cannot be factually stated or supported”

So, while the industry group spent $400,000 on a study it claims proves Bakken is no different from other oil regarding its ignitability and flammability, they admit they didn’t do the work necessary to confirm their hypothesis is “factually stated or supported.”

Wed, 2014-08-13 11:15Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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Rail CEOs to Investors: "Bomb Trains" Safe At Almost Any Speed

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) recently said it would proceed with plans to increase speeds for oil-by-rail unit trains in Devil’s Lake, N.D. to 60 MPH from 30 MPH, despite opposition from local officials

BNSF’s announcement came merely a week after the Obama Administration announced its proposed regulations for trains carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin.  

The rail industry’s position on speed limits for “bomb trains” is simple: they continuously claim velocity has nothing to do with oil-by-rail accidents or safety.

For example, Big Rail — as revealed by DeSmogBlog — lobbied against all proposed oil train speed reductions in its dozen or so private meetings at the Obama White House before the unveiling of the proposed oil-by-rail regulations. 

Recent statements by rail industry CEOs during investor calls put the heads of many companies on record opposing oil-by-rail speed limits for the first time.

Fri, 2014-08-08 11:09Justin Mikulka
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Regulators Ignore One Proven Way to Eliminate Bakken Bomb Trains: Oil Stabilization

On the same day that the Obama administration released long-awaited new safety regulations for the oil-by-rail industry, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) released another report with their testing results for Bakken crude oil. The conclusion reached by PHMSA is that Bakken crude oil “is more volatile than most other types of crude.” 

These results don’t come as a surprise since the five oil trains that have crashed and exploded in the last year all were carrying Bakken crude.  

Of course, the new regulations released imultaneously do not require the oil industry to do the one thing that would eliminate this problem: oil stabilization. A well known and proven method for removing the natural gas liquids from crude oil that makes the oil “stable” and non-explosive.

While the new regulations do not offer any proposals to require the oil industry to remove the volatile components of Bakken crude, on page 144 of the proposal they do acknowledge that this is possible. They request comments on the following question:

Is the current exception for combustible liquids sufficient to incentivize producers to reduce the volatility of crude oil for continued use of existing tank cars?

Essentially they are acknowledging that if the industry stabilized the oil it wouldn’t be explosive and thus they would be able to continue to use the existing DOT-111 rail cars to transport it. Just like those tank cars will be able to transport Alberta tar sands oil because it is not explosive.

The week before the release of the new regulations, the American Petroleum Institute and the American Association of Railroads released a joint statement stating that they were in agreement on two things that shouldn’t be part of the finalized new regulations — lower train speeds and mandatory stabilization. And while the proposed regulations do offer some requirements for lower trains speeds, they include nothing about mandatory stabilization.

Wed, 2014-07-23 10:51Justin Mikulka
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Obama Administration Releases Weak Proposed Rules On Crude By Rail After Industry Lobbying Blitz

The Department of Transportation released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking today for the transportation of crude oil and ethanol by rail. With the release of the proposed new regulations, a public comment period now begins before the rules will be finalized.

The proposed rules offer a wide variety of options for the public to comment on with the weakest proposals essentially being the status quo, as is the case for the rail tank car recommendations.

These proposed regulations have been under review for the past several months at the White House’s Office of Information of Regulatory Affairs where industry lobbyists have been hard at work to weaken and delay the regulations. An initial review of the proposal makes it clear their efforts have paid off and first reactions from advocates for increased safety reflect this.

Matt Krogh, of ForestEthics, the group which recently released a website where people can check if they are within the blast zone for the oil trains, released a statement telling the Obama administration to “go back to the drawing board and put public safety first.”

“Today the Obama administration announced weak new standards for high-hazard flammable trains that give the oil industry a license to threaten the safety of millions of Americans and leave communities and emergency responders holding the bag.

The administration seems to have carefully calculated and managed the inconvenience of these rules to the oil industry, but they’ve severely underestimated the threat of these trains to the American public.”

A review of the proposal reveals many things in the industry’s favor.

Tue, 2014-07-22 10:55Guest
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BNSF Nears Shift To One-Member Crews, Possibly Even on Dangerous Oil Trains

This is a guest post by Cole Stangler.

For decades, the U.S. railroad industry has successfully shed labor costs by shifting to smaller and smaller operating crews. Now, it’s on the verge of what was once an unthinkable victory: single-member crews, even on dangerous oil trains.

A tentative agreement reached by BNSF Railway and the Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) union would allow a single engineer to operate most of the company’s routes. It would mark a dramatic change to a labor contract that covers about 3,000 workers, or 60 percent of the BNSF system.  

It’s not just bad news for workers. The contract has major safety implications—especially amid North America’s dangerous, and sometimes deadly, crude-by-rail boom. Last year’s Bakken shale oil train derailment and explosion in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people, brought increased scrutiny to oil trains. 

In response, Canadian regulators outlawed one-person crews on trains carrying hazardous materials. (A single engineer was in charge of the ill-fated train, although it was unmanned when it rolled into the town center.) 

BNSF spokesperson Roxanne Butler told DeSmogBlog the new contract would not apply to so-called “key trains” — loads of crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials.

As it stands, she says, the company mandates two-member crews for such shipments , and those are the terms of BNSF’s existing labor agreement.

But there is no federal law on the books that requires two-person rail crews for shipments of dangerous goods. The Federal Railway Administration (FRA) is expected to issue a proposed rule on the subject by the end of the year.

Workers worry that without contract guarantees, and no federal protections in place, BNSF will make the cost-cutting shift to one-person crews.

If you look at the contract, there’s nothing that shows they will exempt oil trains,” says Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of Railroad Workers United, a labor group that opposes single-employee freight trains.

[BNSF] will do whatever they want to do,” says Robert Hill, a BNSF engineer based in Hauser, Idaho, roughly twenty miles east of Spokane, a major rail hub for the Northwest. “At some point, you eventually will see a one-man crew on these oil [trains]. There’s nothing specific in their company policy that says they have to have two-man crews on oil trains.”

Thu, 2014-07-10 11:31Justin Mikulka
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Oil Train Blast Zone Website Lets You See Your Proximity to Bomb Trains

Baltimore blast zone oil trains

As part of the ongoing oil-by-rail Week of Action, ForestEthics has launched a new Oil Train Blast Zone website that allows people to search their address and determine if they are within the estimated blast zones for the trains carrying highly flammable crude oil, known as “bomb trains.”  

Millions of North Americans live in the blast zone, do you?” asks Todd Paglia, ForestEthics executive director. “Citizens understand the danger, it's time for policy makers to catch up and step up.”

The website shows the current known routes of the oil trains and highlights the areas that fall within the Department of Transportation’s recommended evacuation zones for oil train derailments (0.5 miles) and the potential impact zones if there is an oil train fire (1.0 mile).

blast zone.png

Finding yourself within these blast zone areas is particularly troubling because, as previously reported on DeSmogBlog, it has been well established that no community is prepared to respond to a worst case scenario oil train accident.  

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