NTSB

Wed, 2014-07-09 10:38Justin Mikulka
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Fox Guarding Henhouse: Oil-By-Rail Standards Led by American Petroleum Institute

How did it get missed for the last ten years?”

That was the question Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), posed to a panel of industry representatives back in April about how the rail industry had missed the fact that Bakken oil is more explosive than traditional crude oil.

How do we move to an environment where commodities are classified in the right containers from the get go and not just put in until we figure out that there’s a problem,” Hersman asked during the two-day forum on transportation of crude oil and ethanol. “Is there a process for that?”

The first panelist to respond was Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of environmental and hazardous materials for the Association of American Railroads (AAR). His response was telling.

We’ve know about this long before Lac-Megantic and that is why we initiated the tank car committee activity and passed CPC-1232 in 2011,” Fronczak replied, “To ask why the standards are the way they are, you’d have to ask DOT that.”

So, now as the new oil-by-rail safety regulations have been sent from the Department of Transportation (DOT) to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, it seems like a good time to review Hersman’s questions.

How did we miss this? Is there a process to properly classify commodities for the right container before they are ever shipped? 

Wed, 2014-06-18 07:06Justin Mikulka and Steve Horn
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White House Meeting Logs: Big Rail Lobbying Against "Bomb Train" Regulations It Publicly Touts

Lynchburg, Virginia Oil Train Explosion

The Obama White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has held the majority of its meetings on the proposed federal oil-by-rail safety regulations with oil and gas industry lobbyists and representatives.

But OIRA meeting logs reviewed by DeSmogBlog reveal that on June 10, the American Association of Railroads (AAR) and many of its dues-paying members also had a chance to convene with OIRA

Big Rail has talked a big game to the public about its desire for increased safety measures for its trains carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the Bakken Shale. What happens behind closed doors, the meeting logs show, tells another story. 

At the June 12-13 Railway Age Oil-by-Rail Conference, just two days after rail industry representatives met with OIRA, American Association of Railroads President Edward Hamberg, former assistant secretary for governmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), made the case for safety. 

“Railroads believe that federal tank car standards should be raised to ensure crude oil and other flammable liquids are moving in the safest car possible based on the product they are moving,” said Hamberg.

The industry also wants the existing crude oil fleet upgraded through retrofits or older cars to be phased out as quickly as possible.”

Yet despite public declarations along these lines, proactive safety measures were off the table for all four of Big Rail's presentations to OIRA.  

Though private discussions, the documents made public from the meeting show one consistent message from the rail industry: safety costs big bucks. And these are bucks industry is going to fight against having to spend.

Wed, 2014-05-28 15:39Justin Mikulka
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Interactive Map and Report on Oil-By-Rail, "Booming Bomb Train Industry"

A new report and website released today by Oil Change International provides a comprehensive overview of the current oil-by-rail industry in North America and it isn’t a pretty picture.

The report and interactive map of the “booming bomb train industry” capture the alarming scope of this very recent development.  As the report points out, 70 times as much oil was moved by rail in 2014 as there was in 2005. That rapid expansion is continuing, placing more North American communities at risk.  

This analysis shows just how out of control the oil industry is in North America today. Regulators are unable to keep up with the industry’s expansion-at-any-cost mentality, and public safety is playing second fiddle to industry profits,” said Lorne Stockman, Research Director of Oil Change International and author of the report.

According to the report, Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude By Rail in North America, approximately one million barrels of oil per day are moved on 135 trains of 100 cars or more each day in America.  If all of the currently planned development of oil-by-rail facilities occurs, the full capacity to move oil would be five times that amount.  

This is what the All of the Above Energy Strategy looks like – a runaway train headed straight for North American communities,” Stockman said.

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This massive investment by the oil and rail industries to expand their capacity to move oil by rail is one of the main reasons that improving oil-by-rail safety is unlikely when it comes to the unsafe DOT-111 tank cars.  These cars currently make up approximately 70% of the oil-by-rail tank car fleet and there is currently a two to three year waiting list for companies wanting new tank cars.  

Wed, 2014-04-30 05:00Justin Mikulka
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How This U.S. Rail Safety Measure Has Been Delayed for 44 Years … And Counting

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman

On August 20, 1969, two Penn Central commuter trains collided head-on near Darien, Conn.  Four people were killed and 43 were injured. The crash led the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to recommend that railroads implement new safety technology called positive train control — a system for monitoring and controlling train movements to increase safety.

The NTSB first recommended positive train control in 1970. In 2008, after another fatal train collision that killed 25 people, Congress finally passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act, which mandated positive train control be implemented by the railroad industry by the end of 2015. 

Fast-forward another six years to multiple congressional hearings in recent months, during which the railroads have informed Congress that positive train control simply won’t be implemented by the end of 2015. It’s been 44 years since the NTSB first recommended positive train control to improve rail safety in the U.S. and it is still not being used. 

Sun, 2014-04-27 07:00Justin Mikulka
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No Community is Prepared for Major Oil-By-Rail Accident, Senate Hearing Told

Just as you aren’t supposed to try to put out an oil fire in your kitchen with water, you aren’t supposed to try to put out a crude oil fire with water either. But in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that is all firefighters had for the first two days of battling the catastrophic oil-by-rail fire last July.

The fire burned until 8,000 gallons of firefighting foam finally arrived from Toronto, an eight-hour drive away. Forty-seven people were killed in the accident.

This lack of foam not only makes the job of first responders impossible when fighting these crude oil fires — it also greatly increases the environmental damage. While the Lac-Megantic firefighters were using water, they were helping the oil flow into the nearby lake and river. One and a half million gallons of oil were spilled. 

At a recent Senate Appropriations hearing on oil-by-rail safety, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Deborah Hersman was very clear about the state of preparedness in the United States when it comes to addressing accidents like the one in Lac-Megantic.

No community is prepared for a worst-case event,” Hersman said.

One of the main reasons no community is prepared for a worst-case oil-by-rail event is the loophole that exempts oil companies from needing comprehensive spill response plans in place. The NTSB has recommended this be changed, but regulators at the Department of Transportation aren’t moving to do so.

Communities are especially vulnerable to oil-by-rail accidents because they have not been trained to fight crude oil fires and, even if they had been, they don’t have the necessary foam. 

Tue, 2014-03-18 06:00Sharon Kelly
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A Record Year of Oil Train Accidents Leaves Insurers Wary

Spurred by the shale drilling rush that has progressed at breakneck speed, the railroad industry has moved fast to help drillers transport petroleum and its byproducts to consumers. Last year, trains hauled over 400,000 carloads of crude oil, up from just 9,500 carloads in 2008, according to railroad industry estimates.  Each carload represents roughly 30,000 gallons of flammable liquids, and some trains haul over 100 oil cars at a time.

But with this fast expansion has come some astounding risks — risks that have insurance companies and underwriters increasingly concerned.

A string of oil train explosions have highlighted the potential for harm. A train hauling 2.9 million gallons of Bakken oil derailed and exploded on November 8 in Aliceville, Alabama, and the oil that leaked but did not burn continues to foul the wetlands in the area.

On December 30th, a train collision in Casselton, North Dakota 20 miles outside of Fargo, prompted a mass evacuation of over half the town’s residents after 18 cars exploded into fireballs visible for miles. 400,000 gallons of oil spilled after that accident, which involved two trains traveling well below local speed limits.

Those crashes are all on the radar of the insurance industry,” attorney Dean Hansell recently told Law360.

All told, railcar accidents spilled more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil in 2013, federal data shows, compared with an average of just 22,000 gallons a year from 1975 through 2012 — a fifty-fold spike.

Thu, 2014-01-02 10:54Steve Horn
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Warren Buffett Bought Stake in Pipeline Company on Same Day as North Dakota Oil Train Explosion

On December 30, the same day a Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) oil train derailed and exploded in Casselton, North Dakota, Warren Buffett — owner of holding company giant Berkshire Hathaway, which owns BNSF — bought a major stake in pipeline logistics company Phillips Specialty Products Inc.

Owned by Phillips 66, a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips, Phillips Specialty Products' claim to fame is lubricating oil's movement through pipelines, increasingly crucial for the industry to move both tar sands crude and oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in an efficient manner.

“Phillips Specialty Products Inc…is the global leader in the science of drag reduction and specializes in maximizing the flow potential of pipelines,” explains its website.

Buffett — the second richest man in the world — sees the flow lubricant business as a lucrative niche one, increasingly so given the explosion of North American tar sands pipelines and fracked oil pipelines.

“I have long been impressed by the strength of the Phillips 66 business portfolio,” he said of the deal in a press release. “The flow improver business is a high-quality business with consistently strong financial performance, and it will fit well within Berkshire Hathaway.”

Sat, 2013-07-13 12:10Guest
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Lac Megantic Oil Train Explosion: Consequences of Deregulation

This is a guest post by Phil Mattera.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board is far from reaching a conclusion on what caused an unattended train with 72 tanker cars filled with crude oil to roll downhill and crash into the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, setting off a huge explosion that killed at least 15 people. But that hasn’t stopped Edward Burkhardt, the chief executive of the railroad, from pointing the finger at everyone in sight — except himself.

Burkhardt first tried to blame local firefighters who had extinguished a small blaze in the train before the larger accident, and now he is accusing his own employee — the person who was operating the train all by himself — for failing to apply all the hand brakes when he parked the train for the night and went to a hotel for some rest after his 12-hour shift.

Whatever were the immediate causes of the accident, Burkhardt and his company — Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) Railway and its parent Rail World Inc. — bear much of the responsibility.

Burkhardt is a living symbol of the pitfalls of deregulation, deunionization, privatization and the other features of laissez-faire capitalism. He first made his mark in the late 1980s, when his Wisconsin Central Railroad took advantage of federal railroad deregulation, via the 1980 Staggers Rail Act, to purchase 2,700 miles of track from the Soo Line and remake it into a supposedly dynamic and efficient carrier. That efficiency came largely from operating non-union and thus eliminating work rules that had promoted safety.

Sat, 2012-07-14 06:00Ben Jervey
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Federal Investigation: "Complete Breakdown of Safety at Enbridge" Caused Kalamazoo River Tar Sands Oil Spill

It was the most expensive pipeline oil spill in the country’s history, the fallout from which still plagues the local communities, and government investigators have found that it was entirely preventable.

The National Transportation Safety Board released its findings from a two year investigation of the 2010 Enbridge tar sands crude pipeline spill (which DeSmogBlog has covered in depth) that dumped over a million gallons of toxic diluted bitumen (or DilBit) into the Kalamazoo River and its watershed.

Complete breakdown of safety.”

The report draws two very stark, clear conclusions about Enbridge’s culture of safety, or lack thereof.

First, Enbridge had known of corrosion and cracking along the 6B pipeline for five years, but the company refused to make repairs.

“Enbridge detected the very defect that led to this failure (in 2005),” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman, “…Yet for five years they did nothing to address the corrosion or cracking at the site, and the problem festered.” (You can watch video of the NTSB announcements here.)

Second, after the rupture, Enbridge employees had many opportunities to minimize the volume and impact of the spill, but failed repeatedly.

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