Responses to the Rash of Oil Train Incidents
By Kyle Ferrar and Samantha Malone
Throughout the U.S. more crude was spilled from rail incidents in 2013 than the prior four decades combined. Recently, in a period of three weeks, there were four* derailments of crude oil trains carrying Bakken and other Canadian crudes resulting in fire and explosions, with multiple cars rupturing and set ablaze.1 One of the most recent incidents occurred on March 5th in Galena, Illinois, just north of Chicago (video below). The fires resulting from crude derailments blaze so hot that emergency responders and firefighters are not able to get close enough to extinguish them. The only option is to let the fire burn out. This process can take days, during which local communities are subject to impaired air quality if not evacuated.2
*This number was revised 4/19/15.
Here we explore how regulators are responding to this public health risk and the new rules being put in place.
Oil Train Incidents Prior to August 2014
Derailments and accidents that occurred prior to August 1, 2014. Click here to view map fullscreen3
Local Bakken Oil and Oil Train Resolutions
In response to these incidents and concerns, at least 50 cities and counties around the country have enacted or proposed resolutions regarding oil trains and Bakken oil. Some of these resolutions ask for direct action while others simply express concern publicly about the risks that the transportation of volatile crude oil by rail poses within their communities.
Resolutions Passed By Local Jurisdictions in California
While we have not collected all of these repossess, a good sample is shown below by state:
|Berkeley, CA||Resolution no. 66516|
|California State Senate||Safety provisions in budget|
|Martinez, CA||Resolution No. 106-14|
|Oakland, CA||Resolution no. 85054|
|Richmond, CA||Resolution no. 26-14|
|Sacramento Area Council of Governments||Letter|
|San Jose, CA||Letter|
|San Luis Obispo, CA||Letter|
|Santa Cruz County, CA||Letter|
|Simi Valley, CA||Letter|
|Barrington/Chicago, IL||Commission letter to President Obama|
|Clinton County, NY||Proposed taskforce|
|Hyde Park, NY||Resolution no. 9:8 – 2 OF 2014|
|Newburg, NY||Resolution no. 230-2014|
|New York State||NY Governor letter to President Obama|
|Rockland County, NY||Meeting plus resolution|
|Hood River, OR||Resolution 2014-22|
|Columbia River Gorge Commission, OR/WA||Resolution|
|Philadelphia, PA||Resolution no. 150129-A01|
|Aberdeen, WA||Resolution no. 2014|
|Anacortes, WA||Resolution no. 1889|
|Auburn, WA||Resolution no. 5050|
|Bainbridge Island, WA||Resolution no. 2014 – 18|
|Bellingham, WA||Resolution no. 2014-03|
|Columbia River Gorge Commission, OR/WA||Resolution|
|Edmonds, WA||Resolutions no. 1317 & no. 1280|
|Hoquiam, WA||Resolution no. 2014-10|
|Kent, WA||Proposed resolution|
|King County, WA||Resolution 2014-0164|
|Mount Vernon, WA||Resolution no. 879|
|Mukilteo, WA||Resolution no. 2014-12|
|Ocean Shores, WA||Resolution no. 727|
|Olympia, WA||Resolution no. M-1812|
|Port of Olympia, WA||Resolution no. 2014-07|
|Quinault Indian Nation||Issued opinion|
|Seattle, WA||Resolution no. 31504|
|Safe Energy Leadership Alliance||SELA letter to DOT and WA Governor|
|Stevenson, WA||Resolution no. 2014-279|
|Vancouver, WA||Policy resolution 5b|
|Washington State Council of Firefighters||Resolution no. 14-33|
|Washougal, WA||Resolution no. 1048|
|Whatcom County, WA||Resolution no. 2014-001|
If any of the PDF’s linked to above do not load, refresh your browser.
Thank you to the many groups and individuals who have helped to compile this list above, such as Audubon Washington and Forest Ethics.
If you would like to recommend additions to this oil trains local actions list, please do so using the comment form at the bottom of this page.
Federal and National Responses
In an official request, the federal Department of Transportation ordered rail companies to provide the shipping details only to state emergency response officials. Due to the health and safety implications of crude by rail, groups like Earth Justice say the public has the right to know what is going through their backyards.4 The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and a working group for the state of New York both found numerous deficiencies in the regulation of rail safety. The Working Group found that there are serious risks throughout the state from oil by rail in addition to significant gaps in local emergency response capabilities.5, 6
To reduce the actual intensity of these incidents, federal regulations establishing “vapor-pressure cap” rules go into effect this April. This specific regulation puts a limit on the amount of explosive gas allowed in the tanker cars. Crudes with greater amounts of short chain hydrocarbons are more volatile (lighter) and therefore more explosive. Bakken crude is considered “light” and “sweet” (more volatile short chain hydrocarbons) and therefore is more flammable/explosive than other crudes.7 Oil producers will have to measure the actual vapor pressure of the crude. The current practice is to calculate the vapor pressure using standards that are not specific enough for the lighter Bakken crude. Measuring the vapor pressure of each tank using an established protocol (i.e. regulatory standards) is therefore necessary to ensure an accurate knowledge of vapor pressure.8
The new standards for North Dakota crude will require operators to filter the crude in order to bring the vapor pressure down to 13.7 psi, a level comparable to the 13.5 psi standard for most automobile gasoline. The North Dakota Petroleum Council criticized the regulations, saying the explosive components of the Bakken crude are what give it such high value. NDPC also criticized the standards for temperature and pressure as being unnecessary.9 The recent West Virginia train that derailed and exploded would have violated this rule according to the testing conducted in North Dakota before departure. Crude involved in the Lac-Mégantic disaster was far below this standard, with an estimated vapor pressure of 9.3.10
Canadian Pacific Railway, the second largest rail company in Canada, wants the authority to refuse to haul crude oil and other hazardous materials due to liability concerns. This change would require an overhaul of the Canada Transportation Act that requires railways to haul any and all legal goods in rail cars that meet safety standards. The Board of Directors asked, “‘What kind of exposure do we have and what kind of exposure are we [exposing] the public to by hauling some of these commodities?” The U.S. railway BNSF, owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, has also protested against a similar U.S. federal regulation.11
Are the recent regulations enough?
The most destructive incident to-date was the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec derailment that killed 47 people on July 6, 2013. Following the Lac-Mégantic explosion, U.S. regulators issued an emergency directive that trains carrying hazardous materials could no longer be left unattended with the engines running unless they first received approval from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The actual implementation of the rule only requires the railroad operators to prepare a plan for such activity and have it on file. There is no requirement for approval from the FRA.3
Other more substantive regulations are slowly coming into effect; for example, by 2017 the weaker DOT-111 oil tanker cars will be retired and all crude will be transported in safer Model CPC-1232 tank cars. Of note, however, is the fact that all five of these recent incidents have involved the safer, reinforced Model 1232 tank cars. A video of the recent derailment outside of Chicago can be seen below.
Galena, Illinois oil train derails with safer model CP-1232 tank cars that had been retrofitted with protective shields.
Data Transparency and Information
Not much detailed information is known publicly about the amount of crude being shipped by railway, the source of the crude, or which routes will be used, but research by the FracTracker Alliance has identified the expansion of crude shipments in communities throughout New York State. In the City of Buffalo, 33% of residents live within the ½ mile blast zone of a railway with crude oil tanker shipments, for example.12 Additional work by groups such as ours and Oil Change International has identified gaps in oversight that may not be possible for state or federal regulations to address. Because the nature of shipping by rail involves long distances and periods of time with infrequent cargo checks, any type of oil spill that goes immediately unnoticed may make it impossible to issue an effective response. Such is the case of a spill in Washington State, shown in the map below.12
In order to preserve the confidentiality of this information, the BNSF and other rail carriers have claimed trade secret exemptions to keep the information and data from being released to the public. The U.S. Department of Transportation has found the oil shipments by rail to “constitute an imminent hazard” and has required that carriers notify the State Emergency Response Commission (SERC) in each state that it operates trains transporting 1,000,000 gallons (23,809.5 barrels) or more of Bakken crude. This information has not been released to the public due to security concerns, however.13
- Wikipedia. List of Rail Accidents. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_rail_accidents_%282010%E2%80%93present%29#2015). Accessed 4/19/15.
- Stern, Marcus; Jones, Sebastian. U.S. Crackdown on Oil Trains – Less Than Meets the Eye. 12/8/2014. Inside Climate News. Accessed 3/10/15.
- Kelso, Matt. 2014. North American Petroleum Transportation by Rail. FracTracker Alliance. Accessed 3/10/15.
- Bizjak, Tony. Tate, Curtis. 10/7/2014. Details about Crude Oil Rail Shipments Shrouded in secrecy. The Sacramento Bee. Accessed 3/10/15.
- 1/23/14. Safety Recommendation R-14-1. Accessed 3/5/15.
- State of New York. 4/30/14. Transporting Crude Oil in New York State: A Review of Incident Prevention and Response Capacity. Accessed 3/10/15.
- Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. 2014. Operation Safe Delivery Update. U.S. Department of Transportation. Accessed 3/12/15.
- Pichler, Hannes, and Josef Lutz. 2014. Why Crude Oil Vapor Pressure Should Be Tested Prior to Rail Transport. Advances in Petroleum Exploration and Development2.
- Scheyder, Ernest. 12/9/2014. North Dakota to require every barrel of crude oil be filtered. Reuters. Accessed 3/10/15.
- Gold, Russel. 3/2/15. Crude on Derailed Train Contained High Levels of Gas. Wall Street Journal. Accessed 3/10/15.
- Eric Atkins. 3/4/2015. Canadian Pacific wants to limit shipments of dangerous goods. The Globe and Mail. Accessed 3/12/15.
- Kelso, Matt. 1/29/15. Regulatory Gaps for Train Spills?. FracTracker Alliance. Accessed 3/14/15.
- S. DOT. 5/7/2014. Emergency Order. Docket No. DOT-OST-2014-0067. Accessed 3/10/15