PHMSA

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.

Sun, 2014-06-15 07:00Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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Meeting Logs: Obama White House Quietly Coddling Big Oil on “Bomb Trains” Regulations

When Richard Revesz, Dean Emeritus of New York University Law School, introduced Howard Shelanski at his only public appearance so far during his tenure as Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), Revesz described Shelanski as, “from our perspective, close to the most important official in the federal government.”

OIRA has recently reared its head in a big way because it is currently reviewing the newly-proposed oil-by-rail safety regulations rolled out by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).   

During his presentation at NYU, Shelanski spoke at length about how OIRA must use “cost-benefit analysis” with regards to regulations, stating, “Cost-benefit analysis is an essential tool for regulatory policy.”

But during his confirmation hearings, Shelanski made sure to state his position on how cost-benefit analysis should be used in practice. Shelanski let corporate interests know he was well aware of their position on the cost of regulations and what they stood to lose from stringent regulations. 

Regulatory objectives should be achieved at no higher cost than is absolutely necessary,” Shelanski said at the hearing.

Tue, 2014-06-03 13:15Julie Dermansky
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Questions Raised About Integrity of Keystone XL's Southern Route After Conditions Added for Northern Leg

The Keystone XL pipeline's southern route passes under Eleanor Fairchild's Texas property, so she got angry when she learned that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has added two new conditions to the 57 already required for construction of the pipeline's northern route.

“My fears were confirmed,” Fairchild told DeSmogBlog. “The regulators knew the southern route wasn’t built safely. It is like they have said to hell with us in Texas and Oklahoma.”


Eleanor Fairchild was defiant when TransCanada started installing the pipeline on her land. She kept a watchful eye during the installation and repair of the pipeline. ©2012 Julie Dermansky

Julia Trigg Crawford, another Texas landowner who fought TransCanada in the courts, shared a link to an Associated Press story that focuses on the two new conditions. “Read this ASAP to see why Texans and Oklahomans were so outraged about TransCanada's abysmal construction record on the southern leg of the Keystone XL,” she wrote.

Julia Trigg Crawford
Julia Trigg Crawford was labeled an activist by TransCanada attorney James Freemand. She considers herself a patriot for standing up for all Americans' property rights. ©2013 Julie Dermansky

The conditions require TransCanada to hire a third-party contractor chosen by PHMSA to monitor the construction and make reports to the U.S. government on whether the work is sound. Additionally, TransCanada must “develop and implement a quality management system that would apply to the construction of the entire Keystone XL project in the U.S. to ensure that this pipeline is — from the beginning — built to the highest standards by both Keystone personnel and its many contractors.”

The Tar Sands Blockade, an activist group that independently monitored the pipeline installation after failing to stop it, wrote on its blog that the new conditions suggest there are serious problems with the southern route.

“TransCanada’s internal quality management and PHMSA’s external inspection program were inadequate, if not fatally flawed. The failures implied by these new conditions beg the question: If TransCanada wasn’t adequately inspecting its own work, and PHMSA didn’t have the third-party inspection company it needed for effective oversight, was anyone actually watching TransCanada?”

Mon, 2014-05-26 14:05Justin Mikulka
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Should CEOs Get Jail Time For Oil-By-Rail Accidents Like Lac Megantic?

Lac Megantic train explosion

On May 12th, a heavily armed SWAT unit stormed the home of Thomas Harding and threw Harding, his son and a visitor to the ground. Harding was then handcuffed, arrested and taken for interrogation.

Harding was the engineer for the oil train that caused the explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. He had cooperated with authorities and was expecting to be charged. The excessive force used to arrest Harding was criticized for being a “politically motivated stunt” in The National Post.

No one is claiming that Harding intentionally caused the accident — however, he is the one facing charges that could result in life in prison.

Meanwhile, the oil industry has knowingly shipped explosive Bakken crude oil and, in the case of Lac-Megantic, misclassified the oil to make it appear less explosive than it actually was.

Irving Oil has been identified by Canada's Transportation Safety Board as the party ultimately responsible for insuring the proper classification of the oil it had purchased. No one from Irving Oil has been charged with any crime.

Fri, 2014-05-09 10:41Justin Mikulka
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Playing With Fire: U.S. Regulators Resort to Weak Voluntary Measures For Oil-By-Rail Safety

Lac Megantic train explosion via Shutterstock

Last year, Jeffrey Wiese, an official with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) told an industry conference that the regulatory process was “kind of dying.”

According to InsideClimate News, Wiese even mentioned that PHMSA was working on a YouTube channel to “persuade the industry to voluntarily improve its safety operations,” as this was one of the only ways it could attempt to improve safety.

PHMSA is the organization in charge of developing new regulations regarding the transportation of crude oil in rail tank cars. 

This week, the Department of Transportation, along with PHMSA, announced its new safety advisory regarding the rail transport of Bakken crude oil. As another example of how the regulatory process is “kind of dying,” the advisory includes no new regulations regarding rail tank cars but “strongly urges” the oil and rail industry to use safer tank cars. 

The advisory makes it clear that oil companies only have to be as safe as they can be while using the existing tank car “fleets” and that they should avoid using older DOT-111 cars to “the extent possible.”   

The dangerous DOT-111 tank cars currently make up approximately 70 percent of the existing fleet of tank cars used for moving oil by rail.

This advisory is just the latest in a long stream of recent safety measures, both voluntary and regulatory.

Fri, 2014-03-28 06:26Justin Mikulka
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Feds Weaken New Oil-By-Rail Safety Regulations Days After Announcing Them

Oil train in Montana

Nine days after announcing new regulations designed to improve oil-by-rail safety, the Department of Transportation quietly weakened the rules for testing rail cars and exempted shippers of bitumen from having to meet the new regulations.

The department had been under pressure from industry since announcing new regulations in response to a round of testing on shipments of Bakken crude oil that found companies had classified crudes as less hazardous than they were in 11 of 18 rail cars.

The tanker cars that exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July of 2013 were also carrying Bakken crude that was misclassified.  The result of these errors is that first responders can arrive at a scene and expect a crude oil fire and instead find a “river of napalm”, as they did in Lac-Megantic.

Fri, 2014-03-07 13:51Julie Dermansky
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Whistleblower Evan Voke’s Evidence Against TransCanada Whitewashed By Regulators

Pipeline safety regulators in North America have done nothing but write warning letters to TransCanada in the two years since former employee Evan Vokes revealed evidence indicating the company had been breaking the rules.

A recently released report by the Canadian National Energy Board on TransCanada's integrity management programs stated: “There are areas where the company was found to be out of compliance.” The board gave TransCanada 30 days to come up with a plan to fix things internally.

In response, Vokes released a statement through the advocacy group, Public Citizen stating:

The Canadian government's audit criticizing TransCanada’s failings is a start, but leaves numerous safety concerns unaddressed. An audit based on paper and interviews only cannot catch non-compliance in the field. In my experience, TransCanada’s management failings are systemic and won’t be fixed simply by reviewing what TransCanada says its policies are on paper. These kind of reviews have not fixed the problem in the past and they aren’t sufficient now. Time and again, TransCanada’s internal and third-party audit systems have failed to catch the repeated substandard practice of engineering in the construction and maintenance of its pipelines. Unless regulators in Canada and the United States step up to the plate to ensure compliance in the field, future ruptures and risks to Americans are inevitable.”

The Canadian Senate held hearings in 2013 about the transport of hazardous materials after Vokes went to the media with what he said was proof that TransCanada was breaking the law. During the hearings the National Energy board testified they had verified much of the evidence Vokes provided.

The Senate’s report cites the National Energy Board's conclusion that TransCanada's incidents of non-compliance do not represent immediate threats to the safety of people or the environment. The report notes the board advanced its previously scheduled audit of TransCanada to include the specific concerns raised by Vokes, but recommends no further action.

“The lack of accountability with regulators is appalling,” Vokes told DeSmog Blog. He says he came forward because the oath he took to become an engineer requires him to put public safety first.

Fri, 2013-12-20 09:45Steve Horn
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Dollarocracy: U.S. Congressmen Refuse to Address Keystone XL Southern Half Spill Concerns

What's the U.S. congressional response to the safety issues with the 485-mile southern half of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline raised by Public Citizen's Texas office? Mostly what Simon & Garfunkel called “The Sound of Silence” in their famous song.

DeSmogBlog contacted more than three dozen members of the U.S. Congress representing both political parties to get their take on Public Citizen's alarming findings in its November investigation (including dents, metal that had to be patched up and pipeline segments labeled “junk”), but got little in the way of substantive responses.

Set to open for business on January 22approved via an Executive Order by President Barack Obama in March 2012 and rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline Project” by TransCanada, the southern half of the pipeline has garnered far less media coverage than its U.S.-Canada border-crossing brother to the north, Keystone XL's northern half.

Over two dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter to President Obama on December 12 expressing concern over the conflicts-of-interest in the U.S. State Department's environmental review process for the northern half of the line.

But none of them would comment on concerns with the southern half of the line raised in the Public Citizen report after multiple queries via e-mail from DeSmogBlog.

Thu, 2013-12-12 14:45Steve Horn
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Federal Pipeline Safety Agency Approves Startup of Keystone XL Southern Half

DeSmogBlog has learned that TransCanada cleared the final hurdle for the southern half of its Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, receiving a green light last week from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) following a review of several safety concerns.

TransCanada announced this week that it has begun injecting oil into the southern half of its Keystone XL pipeline in preparation for commercial operations.  

Leading up to PHMSA giving Keystone XL south the go-ahead to start up, Public Citizen raised several questions about the safety of the pipeline. 

Will TransCanada respond to greivances raised about dents, faulty welding, pipeline material designated “junk” and other issues raised in the consumer advocacy group's November investigation? And what about September 10 and September 26 warning letters obtained by Public Citizen raising similar concerns from PHMSA to TransCanada?

Both TransCanada and PHMSA have provided DeSmogBlog answers to these questions.

Rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline Project” by TransCanada, the 485-mile Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas Keystone XL southern half — approved via a March 2012 Executive Order from President Barack Obama — is set to open for business by mid- to late-January.

Tue, 2013-12-03 05:00Julie Dermansky
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"Just the Reality:" Pipeline Safety Official Admits He’d Avoid Buying A Home Near Pipelines Like Keystone XL

A federal pipeline safety official admitted on camera recently that he made a point of ensuring his home wasn’t in the path of any pipelines before buying it, and that he wouldn't advise anyone to build in the path of a pipeline. 

The official, Bill Lowry, is responsible for community assistance and technical services for the southwest region of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

At a Public Safety Trust conference on Nov. 21, Lowry was asked, “Knowing what you know about the problems in the Keystone XL's construction, what would you do if your house was in its path?”

His answer:  “Here is what I did when I bought my house — I looked on all the maps, I looked for all the well holes. I found there is nothing around me but dry holes and no pipelines. And it's not because I'm afraid of pipelines, it's not because I think something will happen. It's because something could happen. … You're always better off, if you have a choice….” 

He trailed off before finishing his sentence, but added that, “If I was building a house, I wouldn't build it on a refinery, … I wouldn't build it on a pipeline, because they're all industrial facilities. That's just the reality.”

Watch video of PHMSA’s Bill Lowry explaining what measures he took to keep his own family safe from pipelines, and the “reality” of pipeline risks:

Lowry's answer was not terribly reassuring to those along the Keystone XL route, inferring they should have done their due diligence before settling in,” said Ramsey Sprague, spokesperson for the Tar Sands Blockade. “Lowry expects the public to trust that regulators will keep them safe, although he himself doesn't trust it enough to buy property near a pipeline.”

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