Northwesterners are paying attention to the fiery derailments hitting other parts of North America where the oil-by-rail boom is underway.
More and more crude oil is moving across the Northwest by train. But railroad and oil companies are not required to disclose much on shipments or response strategies. That's leaving state officials without information needed to prepare for an oil train mishap.
How many shipments are moving through a given region at any given time? what kind of tanker cars they are in? What are the companies' strategies should a train derail or explode?
These are questions nobody would have raised a few years ago in the Pacific Northwest.
But a boom in the land-locked Bakken oil fields in North Dakota has oil companies turning to the rail industry to move more oil than the country’s pipeline infrastructure can carry.
And the increasing use of these rolling pipelines has been accompanied by a series of derailments -- from last summer's deadly explosion in Quebec to a series of train explosions just before the New Year in North Dakota and this week in New Brunswick.
The explosions and derailments prompted two key Senate chairmen -- energy panel head Ron Wyden of Oregon and transportation committee chief Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia -- to send a letter Thursday to the Obama administration urging consideration of tougher safety standards.
In 2007, U.S. railroads carried just under 6,000 car loads of crude oil. By 2012, railroads were moving 234,000 car loads of it per year, according to the Association of American Railroads trade group. That amount, and the portion of it moving through the Northwest, could increase further if legislators pushing to end restrictions on crude exports are successful.
The railroad industry maintains that more than 99 percent of hazardous materials reach their destination safely. But the surge in shipments of Bakken crude, a particularly flammable substance that catches fire at temperatures as low as 73 degrees Fahrenheit, has included a string of explosions. The latest two occurred on Dec. 30 in Casselton, N.D. and on Tuesday in New Brunswick, Canada.
Both of those explosions involved the shipment of crude oil in a black, cylindrical tanker known since the early 1990s to have dangerous design flaws and subject to “catastrophic loss of hazardous materials.” The tanker, known as DOT-111, was the subject of a study by the National Transportation Safety Board in 1991, which found it was twice as likely to be punctured as other cars studied. Its poor performance was highlighted in four different oil by rail accident investigations since then, prompting a letter to the Department of Transportation in 2012.
The Association of American Railroads established guidelines for updated cars in 2011, and has since petitioned the DOT to require higher standards for new tankers as well as the retrofitting or phasing out of old tankers. DOT is gathering recommendations for updated standards for these tanker cars, but no regulation exists for removing the old cars from the rail system. Outdated DOT-111 cars still account for roughly 85 percent of the 92,000 tanker cars hauling flammable liquids across the country.
How many of those tankers are moving through the Pacific Northwest? The state agencies involved in rail safety and spill cleanup receive next to no information from rail or oil companies on the topic.
Ask the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality for this information and Bruce Gilles, Manager of Cleanup and Emergency Response Programs, can estimate one to three trains per week through Oregon based on 600,000 barrels coming out of the Clatskanie terminal, the endpoint for most shipments.
But as to more precise numbers or what kind of cars they are, “I can't attest to that at all,” he said. As for whether any state agency knows, he said, “I don't know. I don't think so, but I don't know.”
Ask the Oregon Department of Transportation, and rail safety manager John Johnson explains the rail companies don’t have to report that to his agency.
“I don’t know who exactly they report to,” he said. “I can speculate but other than that, that’s all I know.”
Both agencies deferred to the federal government on the topic. The Federal Railroad Administration declined an interview request and referred EarthFix to the Association of American Railroads. Holly Arthur, a spokeswoman for AAR, explained that railroads provide local emergency management with a list of the top-25 hazardous chemicals transported through the region on an annual basis, but do not disclose exactly how much material is moving and when, for security reasons.
“So without knowing what moves in your community, it would be impossible to know in Oregon how many are of this incrementally improved iteration of these tank cars, it's just impossible to know,” Arthur said.
In Washington, at the state Department of Ecology, Spills Program Manager Dale Jensen has a more definitive answer. He estimates three to four oil trains per week through the state, and adds that the rail industry has shared what types of cars being used.
“They’ve shared with us that they’re using the DOT-111A,” Jensen said. “They’re a double ended tank car. It’s the highest level of safety of the rail cars that are being manufactured right now. They have roll over protection and valve protection. There isn’t 100 percent assurance but certainly it’s the highest level of protection in rail cars manufactured today so that’s good news for us here in Washington.”
What is the difference between the DOT-111 and the DOT-111A Jensen describes?
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, “The short answer is there is no difference,” spokesman Keith Holloway said. “DOT-111 is abbreviated for the longer number for these type of cars. The integrity requirements, crash worthiness and design are the same.”
The DOT-111A, mentioned explicitly in the 1991 NTSB report, was the type of car involved in the July explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people. Only new or retrofitted DOT-111A cars meet the latest industry standards.
Oregon and Washington state agencies have no statutory or regulatory control over what passes through the states and how, even if they did have more information on which to act.
“That’s certainly a gap at our state level is the authority that we have at regulating railroad cars,” Jensen said. “These unit trains can come into our state, carry crude oil, along our rivers and streams to their destination and at their appointed destination, at the facility, that’s where my authority begins.”
State officials say they would benefit from more transparency from rail and oil companies when preparing for oil-by-rail accidents.
In November, emergency responders from the region gathered in Portland to discuss the increase of oil shipments through the region and the increased potential for spill that accompanies it. The meeting included the U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental agencies from Oregon, Washington and Idaho, and oil companies and railroads. Railroads are required to keep their own response plans.
BNSF Railway declined an interview for this story, but said via email that the company participated in 20 training session for local emergency responders in Oregon and Washington last year and has invested in new spill equipment that will be placed between Pasco and Vancouver, both Washington cities on the Columbia River.
Aaron Hunt, spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad, said the company has identified every fire department along its rail line and communicates regularly with each. He also noted that the crude Union Pacific currently transports through Oregon is not Bakken crude.
“We communicate with them regularly,” Hunt said of local emergency management agencies. “And we feel confident that they are well prepared to respond to an incident should there be one.”
The state agencies charged with preparing response plans say they have gotten little information on the companies’ response strategies.
“They've got their own geographic response strategies put in place for their rail lines that they haven't shared with the folks here in Oregon and our federal partners, because they're not regulated,” said Bruce Gilles of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
At the November meeting, Gilles said, they established the importance of engaging the rail and oil companies, and that those companies indicated they were willing to be more transparent about their response strategies to help create a single, comprehensive plan.
The groups have not met -- nor communicated much -- since, Gilles said.
Gilles said his agency is expected to finalize a task force within the next week that will be designed to get more information from rail and oil companies about shipments of crude through the state. That task force’s work would be completed by summer, he said.
“Fundamentally communities have a right to know when a substance that potentially is very dangerous is coming through the community,” Farrell said.
She does not expect an easy sell in the legislature: “Whenever we are taking on interest groups, particularly the oil industry, it’s really hard to win.”
At the federal level, The letter from Wyden and Rockefellers comes after Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio's call for a hearing to investigate the safety of rail cars used to transport hazardous materials.
DeFazio wrote to the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee that “a rulemaking process will take months, if not years and I don’t think Congress should wait. The Federal Government must ensure that the rail cars being used to ship crude oil from the Bakken region will keep the crude oil contained, controlled and the public protected when accidents inevitably occur.”
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