By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
Incidents in California involving oil-by-rail cars increased from 3 in 2011 to 25 in 2013. There were 24 incidents within the first 6 months of 2014, and oil spills from rail cars increased from 98 in 2010 to 182 in 2013.1 With such an increase in oil train incidents, we have to ask what the state is doing to protect public safety.
CA Crude Oil by Rail – The Status Quo
California is currently far behind states like New Hampshire and Minnesota that have taken more control over in-state hazards, and have passed laws aimed at forcing rail and pipeline companies to abide by more rigorous emergency response measures instead of relying on the federal government and undertaking state-level spill response plans. These state movements are in response to the existing federal oversight, which critics cite as inadequate.2
State environmental health officials have acknowledged the dangers of a derailment, but have downplayed the risk – comparing the hazard of an incident to be similar to ethanol or gasoline, based on volatility. They do not believe oil train derailments are as hazardous as other materials transported by rail such as chlorine or ammonia. The bigger concern, though, is the huge volume of Bakken crude oil that is being shipped by rail. A recent report by the State of California Interagency Rail Safety Working group acknowledged this and identified key vulnerabilities along CA rail lines; Destinations of the crude trains in CA are the Bay Area via the Feather River or Donner Pass, Bakersfield via the Tehachapi Pass, and Los Angeles via the same route. These routes pass through the state’s most densely populated areas, as well as through some of the state’s most sensitive ecological areas, and each route has at least one high hazard area for derailments. Other issues identified include the impact of earthquakes on trains and rail lines and a shortage of emergency response capacity.
A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council used census data to identify at risk-populations for communities living near the rail lines that can be used for transporting shipments. The analysis identified a total of nearly four million people in the Bay Area and the Central Valley alone that live within 1 mile (the U.S. DOT isolation zone for a crude tanker fire) of a crude shipment rail line. The authors go on to provide the following recommendations to prevent crude oil train accidents:
- Remove Defective, Dangerous Tankers from Crude by Rail Service
- Impose Safer Speed Limits
- Reroute Around Sensitive Areas
- Provide Emergency Responder Resources
- Make Additional operational Safety and Oversight Improvements
- Exercise Local Government Powers4
Crude Oil Shipment Trends
Support of these recommendations is most important as more crude shipments in CA are on the horizon. A recent permit application by the Phillips 66 oil company included a proposal to use Amtrak passenger lines to transport Bakken crude through the San Francisco Bay Area. A review of the proposal by Hinman Consulting Engineers found that over the next 30 years, there is an approximate 28% risk of derailment in the heavily populated stretches of Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Santa Clara, San Jose and others. This estimate is assuming there is no increase in shipping volumes. The damage of an accident was estimated by the researchers, and the analysis showed that approximately 47,000 households and $22 billion in improved property value lay within the projected blast zone, 1000 feet from the railway. A projection of the damage from a single accident estimated that an average of 117 households along with $244 million in property value could be destroyed. Hinman also stated that “this figure does not include loss of revenue, environmental cleanup costs, loss of human life, or other societal costs.”5 A proposal by Valero Refining Co. plans to ship 100 crude oil tank cars a day through downtown Sacramento and downtown Davis to Benicia.
Responses by CA Regulators and Railroads
To plan for this increase in rail traffic, Sacramento passed a shipping charge to prevent and manage spills that will result in $11 million in 2015. Another bill has been introduced to impose a second shipping fee on oil companies to train and equip first responders to deal with major spills and fires on railroad lines. An additional bill was also authored requiring rail carriers to communicate more closely with state emergency officials about crude oil rail movements.6
The map below shows where spills and train accidents have occurred in CA since 2011. When zoomed out the map shows areas with higher incidence rates of accidents, but when zoomed to a higher resolution the map differentiates the accidents by year.7
CA Crude Oil by Rail and Railroad Accidents
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In the map above, a hot spot analysis shows the frequency of railroad accidents, such as derailments. Areas with the highest incidence rates are shown in yellow. The actual locations and descriptions with dates of these accidents can be seen by zooming in using the plus (+) button in the top left corner of the map, and clicking on a diamond symbol. Shown in red and green are the BNSF and other railroad lines used for the transportation of crude by rail.
From what little data has been released, it is clear that BNSF railway intends to ship two Bakken crude trains per week carrying more than one million gallons of crude through the CA counties of Butte, Contra Costa, Lassen, Modoc, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Yuba.8 The same information from Union Pacific Railroad has not been made public by the state of CA. The route shown in the figure to the right has been mapped in the FracTracker Alliance’s California Crude Shipment Routes and Railroad Accidents map above. From the map, you can see that there have been numerous accidents already on this BNSF rail line, particularly near Stockton and in the heavily populated North Bay Area.
- California Office of Emergency Services. 5/6/14. Historical HazMat Spill Notifications. Accessed 3/8/15.
- Douglas E. 6/16/14. 2 States Beef Up Oil-by-Rail and Pipeline Safety After String of Accidents. Inside Climate News. Accessed 3/9/15.
- Interagency Rail Safety Working Group. 6/10/14. Oil by Rail Safety in California. California Office of Emergency Services.
- Bailey D. 6/2014. It Could Happen Here: The Exploding Threat of Crude by Rail in California. Natural Resources Defense Council. Accessed 3/10/15.
- Reis E & Coughlin A. 6/6/2014. New Proposed Oil Transportation Calls for Rational, Risk-Based Mitigation Approach. Hinman Consulting Engineers. Accessed 3/11/15
- Bizjak T. 6/16/14. California to impose fee on crude oil rail shipments; funds to be used for spill prevention, cleanup. The Sacramento Bee. Accessed 3/10/15.
- U.S. DOT. 5/7/2014. Emergency Order. Docket No. DOT-OST-2014-0067. Accessed 3/10/15.
- California Public Utilities Commission. 2015. Railroad Safety and Operations. Accessed 3/8/15.
- U.S. DOT. 9/30/14. Re: U.S. Department of Transportation Emergency Order Docket Number DOT-OST-2014-0067 (Issued May 7, 2014). Accessed 3/10/15.