Booming oil production poses risk on railways

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By Mike Winslow

The sound of trains clacking along the rails that abut Lake Champlain has become more common recently with the dramatic increase in freight traffic attributed to fossil fuel extraction. Each week approximately 60 million gallons of oil travel along the lake carried by 20 trains with up to 100 cars each.

The U.S. now meets 66 percent of its crude oil demand from production in North America with tremendous growth in outputs from Canada and the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. In October 2013, U.S. crude oil production exceeded imports for the first time since February 1995.

Oil produced from the Bakken fields is very light. That means it flows easily, but it also means it is more volatile and flammable. As a result, the potential property damage and loss of life associated with rail accidents involving Bakken oil is higher than oil from other sources. In January of this year, two federal agencies issued a safety alert warning of these risks.

The alert was triggered by a series of devastating accidents. Federal Railroad Administration statistics suggest that on average at least one car slips off the tracks every day. There have been six major derailments between the beginning of 2013 and mid-January 2014. The most infamous occurred on July 5, 2013, in Lac Megantic, Quebec. An improperly secured train began rolling on its own, and 63 cars derailed near the center of town. Derailment led to multiple explosions and fires, evacuation of 2,000 people, and 47 fatalities.

On Oct. 19, 2013, 13 tank cars derailed in Alberta leading to evacuation of 100 residents. Three cars carrying propane burned following an explosion. On Nov. 8, 2013, 30 cars derailed in a wetland near Aliceville, Ala., and about a dozen were decimated by fire. On Dec. 30, 2013, two trains, one carrying grain and one oil, collided in Casselton, North Dakota. Twenty of the oil train cars derailed and exploded leading to evacuation of 1,400 people. On Jan, 7, 2014, 17 cars derailed in New Brunswick and five exploded leading to evacuation of 45 people.

Our region is no stranger to train derailments. In 2007, a northbound Vermont Railways freight train derailed in Middlebury spilling gasoline into Otter Creek and leading to the evacuation of 30 streets in the vicinity. Trains have also derailed along the Lake Champlain route. In 2007, 12 cars derailed near Route 22 in Essex, N.Y., the same stretch of tracks now carrying volatile oil.

Concern over the state of North American freight rail safety predates the increase in oil shipments. In 2006, the Toronto Star ran a five-part series on rail safety, noting “Canadian freight trains are running off the rails in near record numbers and spilling toxic fluids at an alarming rate, but only a tiny fraction of the accidents are ever investigated.”

The greatly increased oil traffic has further strained railroad infrastructure. According to an article in Pacific Standard Magazine, 85 percent of the 92,000 tank cars that haul flammable liquids around the nation are standard issue DOT-111s. They have been referred to as “Pepsi cans on wheels”. These cars are built to carry liquids, but lack specialized safety features found in pressurized tanks used for hauling explosive liquids. The industry has agreed to include additional safety features in any new cars put on the tracks, but since rail cars have an economic life of 30 to 40 years, conversion to the newer cars has been slow.

One relatively new risk is the predominance of “unit trains.” These are long series of cars all shipped from the same originating point to the same destination. Often the cars will all carry the same product. It used to be that oil cars were mixed in with other freight cars bound for different locations. Unit trains are a greater risk in part because safety standards are based on the carrying capacity of a single car and don’t account for the greater volumes that unit trains can transport. The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating accidents, has called on the Federal Railroad Administration to change this standard.

Recently, an oil company submitted plans to build an oil heating facility in Albany, N.Y. The facility would be used to heat oil shipped via rail. The oil would then be transferred to barges and floated to refineries. If permitted, a heating facility would draw increased transport of Canadian tar sands, which needs to be diluted or heated for loading or unloading, through the Lake Champlain region.

In contrast to Bakken field oil, tar sands oil is very heavy. Clean-up of tar sands oil following accidents is extremely difficult. The oil sinks rather than floats making containment very difficult. When a pipeline carrying tar sands oil broke near Kalamazoo Michigan, 850,000 gallons spilled. The resulting clean-up cost over $1 billion and costs were “substantially higher than the average cost of cleaning up a similar amount of conventional oil”, according to a report prepared by the Congressional Research Service.

In November of 2013, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation declared the proposed facility would have no significant environmental impacts. However, public outrage led them to reconsider that declaration, expand the public comment period, and seek additional information from the proponents. Still, the additional requested information only touches the tip of the facility’s impacts on the region. The facility should undergo a full environmental impact review that includes potential impacts on freight shipping throughout the region including along Lake Champlain.

The increased risk associated with more oil transport along Lake Champlain and in the region seemed to catch regulators by surprise, but they are reacting now. On Jan. 28 Governor Cuomo issued an executive order directing several New York State agencies to do a top-to-bottom review of safety procedures and emergency response preparedness related to rail shipments of oil. On Feb. 26, Sen. Chuck Schumer called for the phase out of all DOT-111 rail cars and reduction in rail speed limits in heavily populated areas. On March 4, Cuomo sent a letter to the secretaries of the departments of Homeland Security and Transportation urging them to expedite and strengthen rail safety standards, require reporting by railroad companies of derailments, increase inspections, and identify and track rail cars carrying crude oil. On April 10, the DEC issued a joint press release with the EPA and the Coast Guard committing the agencies to enhance emergency preparedness and response capabilities for potential crude oil incidents. On April 30, Governor Cuomo wrote a letter calling on President Obama to prioritize federal actions to reduce risks of future train derailments.

Delays by the Federal Railroad Administration in updating standards to reflect the greatly increased traffic of potentially explosive Bakken crude oil all around the country puts people, communities, Lake Champlain and other waterways at risk. The administration needs to act before another disaster like what occurred in Lac Megantic occurs here or elsewhere. Train whistles echoing off the lake should elicit wistful thoughts of faraway places, not shudders of dread.

 

Mike Winslow is a staff scientist with the Lake Champlain Committee, a bi-state non-profit based in Burlington dedicated to protecting Lake Champlain’s health and accessibility. More information is available at www.lakechamplaincommittee.org.