Nearly 3 Million Gallons of Drilling Wastewater Spewed From ND Pipeline

New information reveals that “brine” from ruptured pipeline in North Dakota could be worst spill of its kind since state’s shale boom began
NORTH DAKOTA–(ENEWSPF)–January 22, 2015
By: Andrea Germanos   eNews Park Forest   January 22, 2015

williamscounty-a

Oil operations in Williams County, North Dakota. (Photo: Geof Wilson/flickr/cc)

A pipeline rupture earlier this month in North Dakota is now revealed to have spilled a possible record-setting amount of “brine” created as a byproduct of oil drilling, with the full impacts of the incident still unknown.
The North Dakota Department of Health was notified of the Jan. 6 leak in Williams County by pipeline operator by Summit Midstream Partners, LLC on the 7th. Based on information from the company, the department hadstated that an “undetermined amount of produced water has been released from a salt water disposal line.”

A statement issued by the department Wednesday, however, says that the Summit Midstream informed them Tuesday that it was “approximately 70,000 barrels of produced water and an unknown amount of oil” that spewed from the pipeline.

That amount equals 2.94 million gallons.

The Associated Press described it as the largest spill of its kind since the state’s shale boom began.

First said to have impacted just the Blacktail Creek, the Little Muddy Creek is now reported by officials as being impacted as well. AP reports that the Missouri River is also a possible casualty.

Cleanup and remediation efforts are underway, though that effort could take years. Officials say the spill doesn’t pose a threat to public drinking water.

Dave Glatt, chief of the North Dakota Department of Health’s environmental health section, said that the full environmental impact won’t be seen until the spring thaw.

The fluid that escaped from the pipeline is being described as “saltwater” or “brine.” As Abraham Lustgarten previously reported for ProPublica, the drilling byproduct “often includes less benign contaminants, including fracking chemicals, benzene and other substances known to cause cancer.”

 

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Portland port passes on oil-by-rail terminal

While Vancouver pursues project, other Northwest ports aren’t so sure
By Aaron Corvin   The Columbian  January 18, 2015

http://www.columbian.com/news/2015/jan/18/portland-port-passes-oil-terminal-rail/

The nation’s public ports, focused on attracting industry and jobs, are largely known as agnostics when it comes to pursuing the commodities they handle.

It doesn’t matter if the shipments are toxic or nontoxic. Ports move cargoes, the story goes. They don’t pronounce moral judgments about them.

At one point, the Port of Portland considered a vacant swath of land (pictured above between the rail tracks and water) near its Terminal 6 as a potential site for an oil-by-rail terminal. Instead, the undeveloped tract is now under consideration for a propane export terminal. (Bruce Forester/Port of Portland)

At one point, the Port of Portland considered a vacant swath of land (pictured above between the rail tracks and water) near its Terminal 6 as a potential site for an oil-by-rail terminal. Instead, the undeveloped tract is now under consideration for a propane export terminal. (Bruce Forester/Port of Portland)

However, at least one line of business is no longer necessarily a lock, at least in the Northwest: the transportation of crude oil by rail.

Public concerns about everything from explosive oil-train derailments and crude spills to greenhouse gas emissions and the future of life on the planet are part of the reason why.

In at least two cases in Oregon and Washington, ports decided safety and environmental concerns loomed large enough for them to step back from oil transport. The Port of Portland, for example, eyed as much as $6 million in new annual revenue when it mulled siting an oil-train export terminal, documents obtained by The Columbian show. Ultimately, Oregon’s largest port scrapped the idea because of rail safety and other worries. At one point, it also reckoned that “the public does not readily differentiate between our direct contribution to climate change and actions we enable.”

In Washington, the Port of Olympia adopted a resolution raising multiple safety, environmental and economic concerns. It noted the July 6, 2013, fiery oil-train accident in Lac Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people. And the resolution called on the Port of Grays Harbor to rethink opening its doors to three proposed oil-by-rail transfer terminals.

To be sure, there doesn’t appear to be a groundswell of Northwest ports swearing off oil or other energy projects. Yet public concerns aren’t lost on the port industry. Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association, said he worries that putting certain commodities such as coal under “cradle-to-grave” environmental analyses sets a bad precedent that could gum up the quest for other port cargoes.

Nevertheless, he said, “we’re concerned about oil-by-rail transportation.” So much so, the association, which represents some 64 ports in Washington, will soon issue a position paper, Johnson said. It will include calls on the federal government to boost the safety of tank cars, and to upgrade oil-spill prevention and response measures. Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board said that assuring the safety of oil shipments by rail would be one of its top priorities for the year.

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The Methane Monster Roars

By Dahr Jamail   13 January 2015   Truthout

http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/28490-the-methane-monster-roars

Image: Icy waters, rising steam, gas jets via Shutterstock; Edited: JR/TO

Image: Icy waters, rising steam, gas jets via Shutterstock; Edited: JR/TO

During a recent hike in Washington State’s Olympic National Park, I marveled at the delicate geometry of frost-covered ferns. White crystalline structures seemed to grow from the green leaves, encasing them in a frozen frame of temporary beauty.

Progressing further up into the mountains, I stopped to lunch and sip hot coffee from a thermos while gazing across a river valley at a snow-covered mountainside, sizing up a frozen waterfall for a possible ice climb in the future. Yet I found myself beginning to wonder how many more winters ice would continue to form there.

The disparity of the beauty before me with my troubled thoughts about the planet has found no reconciliation. I had been collecting data and conducting interviews for articles about methane releases in the Arctic for weeks, and pondering the information through the holidays only led me into depression. Going out into the mountains helped, but also provoked grave concerns for our collective future.

“Our climate system is in early stages of abrupt climate change that, unchecked, will lead to a temperature rise of 5 to 6 degrees Celsius within a decade or two.”
To consider the possibility that humans have altered the atmosphere of the earth so drastically as to put our own lives in danger seems, at least emotionally, unfathomable. Given the scale of the planet, one would think, logically, it might not even be possible. Yet the majestic snow-covered peaks near where I live may no longer have glaciers (or even snow) within my lifetime, according to some of the scientists I’ve interviewed.

Paul Beckwith, a climatology and meteorology professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada, is an engineer and physicist who researches abrupt climate change in both the present day and in the paleoclimatology records of the deep past.

“It is my view that our climate system is in early stages of abrupt climate change that, unchecked, will lead to a temperature rise of 5 to 6 degrees Celsius within a decade or two,” Beckwith told me. “Obviously, such a large change in the climate system will have unprecedented effects on the health and well-being of every plant and animal on our planet.”

A Very Different Planet

Vast amounts of methane lie frozen in the Arctic. It’s not news that the Arctic sea ice is melting rapidly, and that it will likely be gone for short periods during the summers starting as early as next year. Losing that ice means releasing larger amounts of previously trapped methane into the atmosphere.

Additionally, lying along the Arctic’s subsea continental margins and beneath Arctic permafrost are methane hydrates, often described as methane gas surrounded by ice. In March 2010, a report in Science indicated that these cumulatively contain the equivalent of 1,000 to 10,000 gigatons of carbon.

For perspective, humans have released approximately 1,475 gigatons in total carbon dioxide since the year 1850.

“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.”

Beckwith warns that losing the Arctic sea ice will create a state that “will represent a very different planet, with a much higher global average temperature, in which snow and ice in the northern hemisphere becomes very rare or even vanishes year round.”

In the simplest terms, here’s what an ice-free Arctic would mean when it comes to heating the planet: Minus the reflective ice cover on Arctic waters, solar radiation would be absorbed, not reflected, by the Arctic Ocean. That would heat those waters, and hence the planet, further. This effect has the potential to change global weather patterns, vary the flow of winds and even someday possibly alter the position of the jet stream. Polar jet streams are fast-flowing rivers of wind positioned high in the earth’s atmosphere that push cold and warm air masses around, playing a critical role in determining the weather of our planet.

“What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” Beckwith explained. “The rapidly warming Arctic relative to the rest of the planet (five to eight times global average temperature rise) is decreasing the temperature gradient between the Arctic and the equator.”

This decreased gradient is disrupting the jet stream, leading to further warming in the Arctic, forming a runaway feedback loop, which in turn is causing the release of more methane in the Arctic.

And on land, it’s already happening as well. On Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula, mysterious holes in the ground drew international attention before they became not-so-mysterious when Russian researchers found significant amounts of methane inside them. Now, that same area is making news again as researchers have found increasing amounts of methane emissions coming from thawing permafrost there.

Why should we be so concerned about methane, when all of the talk around climate disruption seems to focus on carbon dioxide levels?
“As the methane concentrations increase in the Arctic from the large warming rates there in both the atmosphere and ocean, the jet streams will be greatly disrupted even more than now,” Beckwith said. “Physics dictates that this will continue to increase the frequency, severity and duration of extreme weather events like torrential rains leading to widespread flooding in some regions and droughts in other regions. Needless to say, this causes enormous economic losses and poses a severe and grave threat to our global food supply. Thus, the Arctic can be considered the Achilles heel in our climate system.”

US Navy researchers have predicted periods of an ice-free Arctic ocean in the summer by 2016.

British scientist John Nissen, chairman of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group,suggests that if the summer sea ice loss passes “the point of no return” and “catastrophic Arctic methane feedbacks” kick in, we’ll be in an “instant planetary emergency.”

Why should we be so concerned about methane, when all of the talk around climate disruption seems to focus on carbon dioxide levels?

In the atmosphere, methane is a greenhouse gas that, on a relatively short-term time scale, is far more destructive than carbon dioxide. When it comes to heating the planet, methane is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide, per molecule, on a 100-year timescale, and 105 times more potent on a 20-year timescale – and the Arctic permafrost, onshore and off, is packed with the stuff.

According to a study published in Nature Geoscience, twice as much methane as previously thought is being released from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, a 2 million square kilometer area off the coast of northern Siberia. The recent study’s researchers found that at least 17 teragrams (17 million tons) of methane are being released into the atmosphere each year, whereas a 2010 study had found only seven teragrams heading into the atmosphere.

To gain a better understanding of the implications of Arctic warming, I interviewed some of the scientists conducting the most cutting edge and current methane studies in the Arctic.

“Increased methane would influence air temperature near the surface. This would accelerate the Arctic warming and change the climate everywhere in the world.”
Dr. Leonid Yurganov is a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland Physics Department and the Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology, and his current research expertise is connected with remote sensing of tropospheric composition and Arctic methane levels. He is a co-author of an upcoming research paper that will show how recent Arctic warming has stimulated speculations about the release of methane from the seabed there and kicked off a new climatic positive feedback loop. Using remote sensing technology, his team has detected long-term increases of methane over large areas of the Arctic.

Yurganov warns of the consequences of a rapidly warming Arctic.

“The difference in temperatures between the poles and the equator drives our air currents from [the] west to [the] east,” he told Truthout. “If this difference diminishes, the west to east transport becomes slower, and north-south currents become stronger. This results in frequent changes in weather in mid-latitudes.”

While Yurganov isn’t seeing “fast and immediate liberation of methane from hydrates” at this very moment, he warned of what would happen if and when it does occur.

“Increased methane would influence air temperature near the surface,” he said. “This would accelerate the Arctic warming and change the climate everywhere in the world.”

Yurganov does not foresee an immediate global collapse within a decade. In his view, the summer Arctic sea ice will continue to shrink in a more linear fashion, but the frequency of extreme weather events and rising sea levels will continue to accelerate. “People should accommodate to climate change and be prepared to a decline in life-level caused by it,” he warned.

Yurganov sees population reduction via people not having as many babies as one answer to our predicament.

“Depopulation, that resolves all the problems,” he said. “The earth with [a] lower global population, say, twice as low, would emit less carbon dioxide.”

Another Russian scientist who has been studying methane releases in the Arctic, however, had even more worrying news.

The Looming Specter of Abrupt Methane Release

Natalia Shakhova is a research associate professor of the University Alaska Fairbanks, International Arctic Research Center, where she focuses on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS). Shakhova believes we should be concerned about her group’s findings from the ESAS, specifically, because that area differs significantly from methane emissions happening elsewhere around the world.

The ESAS is the largest shelf in the world, encompassing more than 2 million square kilometers, or 8 percent of the world’s continental shelf. Shakhova believes it holds an area-weighted contribution to the global hydrate inventory of “at least 10 to 15 percent.”

“These emissions are prone to be non-gradual (massive, abrupt) for a variety of reasons,” she told Truthout. “The main reason is that the nature of major processes associated with methane releases from subsea permafrost is non-gradual.”

A 50-gigaton “burp” of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost beneath the East Siberian sea is “highly possible at anytime.”
This means that methane releases from decaying frozen hydrates could result in emission rates that “could change in order of magnitude in a matter of minutes,” and that there would be nothing “smooth, gradual or controlled” about it; we could be looking at non-linear releases of methane in amounts that are difficult to fathom.

She explained that the transition from the methane being frozen in the permafrost, either on land or in the shallow northern shores of the East Siberian Arctic, “is not gradual. When it comes to phase transition, it appears to be a relatively short, jump-like transformation from one state of the process to another state. The difference between the two states is like the difference between a closed valve and an open valve. This kind of a release is like the unsealing of an over-pressurized pipeline.”

These immediate methane releases in the ESAS could be triggered at any moment by seismic or tectonic events, the subsiding of sediments caused by hydrate decay or sediment sliding due to permafrost degradation and thaw. The ESAS is particularly prone to these immediate shifts because it is three times shallower than the mean depth of the continental shelf of the world ocean.

“This means that probability of dissolved methane to escape from the water column to the atmosphere is from three to 10 times greater than anywhere in the world’s oceans,” Shakhova said. “In the ESAS, methane is predominantly transported as bubbles. Methane bubbles rise to the surface at a speed from 10 to 40 cm s-1; this means that it only takes minutes for methane to reach the water surface and escape to the atmosphere.”

Including all factors, Shakhova estimates that the carbon pool of the ESAS is in orders of magnitude greater than 180 gigatons, and added that “its role will increase over time.”

While humans can adapt to these new fluctuations in the weather, agriculture and ecosystems cannot.
A study published in the prestigious journal Nature in July 2013 confirmed what Shakhova has been warning us about for years: that a 50-gigaton “burp” of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost beneath the East Siberian sea is “highly possible at anytime.” That would be the equivalent of at least 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide. (Remember, for perspective, humans have released approximately 1,475 gigatons in total carbon dioxide since the year 1850.)

Even the relatively staid Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) haswarned of such a scenario: “The possibility of abrupt climate change and/or abrupt changes in the earth system triggered by climate change, with potentially catastrophic consequences, cannot be ruled out. Positive feedback from warming may cause the release of carbon or methane from the terrestrial biosphere and oceans.”

In the last two centuries, the amount of methane in the atmosphere has increased from 0.7 parts per million to 1.7 parts per million. The introduction of methane in such quantities into the atmosphere may, some climate scientists fear, make increases in the global temperature of 4 to 6 degrees Celsius inevitable.

Yet some of the scientists I spoke with warned of even worse consequences.

Global Implications

Ira Leifer, an atmospheric and marine scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of several Arctic methane studies, told Truthout that the scientific community has learned that methane emissions from the Arctic are already larger than previously thought, and said, “The warming trend in the Arctic is clear.”

The dangers of methane-related warning are staggering, according to Leifer.

“The amount of methane trapped in submerged permafrost is vast, and if even a small fraction reaches the atmosphere on the time scale of a few decades, it would lead to a dramatic increase in warming on a global scale,” he warned. “Furthermore, it could lead to a positive feedback where warming oceans release more methane which warms the Arctic more and leads to more methane release. Worse, the warming only slowly percolates to lower latitudes – and therefore it contributes to the enhanced Arctic warming.”

Just as Beckwith, Yurganov and Shakhova noted, Leifer warned that a warming Arctic has “global implications.”

“Further acceleration of these processes is very likely to lead to an ‘abrupt climate change’ system reorganization from a cold, snowy, ice-covered Arctic Ocean to a ‘blue Arctic Ocean’ regime.”
Earth’s weather is controlled in three cells: the tropics, mid-latitude and polar. So a weakening of the difference in temperature between the pole-equator areas causes an expansion of the tropical cell, which drives desertification in some places and increased flooding in others. All the while, polar weather is expanding, as we’ve been seeing in the United States during recent winters.

While humans can adapt to these new fluctuations in the weather, agriculture and ecosystems cannot.

Like Shakhova, Leifer also expressed concern about the ESAS.

“The potential is there for hydrate emissions to increase with warming oceans due to increased dissociation,” he warned. He also confirmed that his recent studies of methane emissions in the Arctic even found the gas hundreds of miles from the coast. This means that the methane cannot be coming from land sources; Leifer has concluded that his recent studies “confirm a local marine source.”

Meaning, the subsea hydrates are already releasing their methane very far from shore. Beckwith notes that the increasing methane releases in the Arctic and the massive impact they will have on the planetary weather system mean “there will be continuing disruption and fracturing of our weather and climate systems.”

He went on to issue a stark warning. “Further acceleration of these processes is very likely to lead to an ‘abrupt climate change’ system reorganization from a cold, snowy, ice-covered Arctic Ocean to a ‘blue Arctic Ocean’ regime,” he said. “The final state could have a global temperature average being 5 or 6 degrees Celsius warmer and the transition to this state could occur in one to two decades, as has occurred many times in the past as recorded in paleorecords.”

The advent of the “blue Arctic Ocean” Beckwith warns us of is only a matter of time, and will most likely happen before 2020, considering that exponential decline in Arctic summer sea ice volume has already been determined by the Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System data and models, which have been corroborated with recent CryoSat measurements, as well as modeling by the Naval Graduate School Regional Climate Models.

Beckwith believes the first of these “blue ocean” events will likely last a few weeks to one month the first time it happens, but then extend to several months just a few years later.

We are already in the midst of what scientists consider the sixth mass extinction in planetary history.
Meanwhile, the IPCC has not addressed Arctic methane releases as a runaway feedback loop, nor has the mainstream media across the political spectrum.

“Then, the greatly increased Arctic warming from albedo collapse would likely result in a year round ‘Arctic blue ocean’ within a decade or two, completing the regime shift to a much warmer climate,” he said.

Thus, Beckwith, like Shakhova, warns of the 50-gigaton methane burst, and fears it is only a matter of time before it occurs.

I asked Leifer if he believed we have already triggered a rapid increase in global temperatures that could lead to the kind of abrupt climate shifts of which Beckwith warns.

“Recently, it has been announced that 2014 is the warmest year ever in the instrumental records,” he said. “A large preponderance of the heat added to the climate system over the last decade or so has gone into heating the oceans and when this heat balance cycles back to the atmosphere we will see a very rapid rise in global average temperatures.”

Another “Great Dying?”

The Permian mass extinction that occurred 250 million years ago was related to methane – in fact, the gas is thought to be the key to what caused the extinction of approximately 95 percent of all species on the planet.

Also known as “The Great Dying,” it was triggered by a massive lava flow in an area of Siberia that led to an increase in global temperatures of 6 degrees Celsius. That, in turn, caused the melting of frozen methane deposits under the seas. Released into the atmosphere, it caused temperatures to skyrocket further. All of this occurred over a period of approximately 80,000 years.

We are already in the midst of what scientists consider the sixth mass extinction in planetary history, with between 150 and 200 species going extinct daily, a pace 1,000 times greater than the “natural” or “background” extinction rate. This event may already be comparable to, or even exceed, both the speed and intensity of the Permian mass extinction. The difference: Ours is human caused. (Plus, it probably isn’t going to take 80,000 years; it has so far lasted just a few centuries, and is now gaining speed in a non-linear fashion.)

It is possible that, on top of the vast quantities of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels that continue to enter the atmosphere in record amounts yearly, an increased release of methane could signal the beginning of the sort of process that led to the Great Dying.

Some scientists fear that the situation is already so serious and so many self-reinforcing feedback loops are already in play that we are in the process of causing our own extinction. Worse yet, some are convinced that it could happen far more quickly than generally believed possible – in the course of just the next few decades – or, as Beckwith believes, possibly even sooner than that.

Back in Olympic National Park, when I was returning from my hike, I happened upon a small herd of elk. I watched them as they watched me, before they slowly began to retreat further into the forest. As I continued along, I wondered how they are responding to what is happening to the planet. Their habitat is shifting dramatically, as are their food and water sources. Approaching the trailhead, I marveled at green moss-covered trees – and contemplated how the magnificent natural landscape of Olympic National Park will respond as the climate is rapidly disrupted. The Olympic Mountains support the third largest glacier system in the 48 contiguous United States and are rapidly losing their glaciers. And with at least four already endangered species living within the park the impacts are already clear, and are guaranteed to worsen.

I went on to wonder how humanity will respond, but then checked myself with the fact that the Arctic methane feedback loops are most likely already well underway, only an international emergency immediate response to cease all global carbon emissions might slightly mitigate the crisis, and yet most world governments’ responses are laughable.

Naturally, what was left was to ask myself: How am I responding?

How are you?

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The Tar Sands Pipeline of Politics

http://www.thenation.com/article/184641/tar-sands-pipeline-politics?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=socialflow#

brodner_for_web-1500-full

1  AT&T: $3,270,708 (Randall Stephenson, CEO)

2  Koch Industries: $3,054,800 (Charles Koch, CEO and chair, right;
David Koch, executive VP)

3  American Bankers Association: $2,984,450 (Frank Keating, CEO)

4  National Automobile Dealers Association: $2,808,000 (Forrest McConnell III, chair)

5  National Association of Realtors, $2,752,618 (Dale Stinton, CEO)

6  National Beer Wholesalers Association: $2,661,250 (Craig Purser, CEO)

7  ExxonMobil: $2,058,724 (Rex Tillerson, CEO)

8  PricewaterhouseCoopers: $1,856,877 (Dennis Nally, chair)

9  Goldman Sachs: $1,757,104 (Lloyd Blankfein, CEO)

10  General Electric: $1,756,457 (Jeffrey Immelt, CEO)

Dollar figures: contributions from the organization, subsidiaries and affiliates; from owners, employees or family members; and from the organization’s PAC

Period covered: from the 2007–08 election cycle through July 2014

Recipients: the 160 members of Congress who have denied the scientifically established link between pollution and climate change

Source: the #DisruptDenial report by Forecast the Facts Action and SumOfUs, using reports filed to the FEC and compiled by OpenSecrets.org

 

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Environmentalists Push To Keep Canadian Crude In The Ground

By Jeff Brady   January 08, 2015   NPR

An excavator loads a truck with oil sands at the Suncor mine near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada in 2009. Environmental groups that oppose oil sands mining have pointed to delayed and canceled projects as a sign of recent success. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

An excavator loads a truck with oil sands at the Suncor mine near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada in 2009. Environmental groups that oppose oil sands mining have pointed to delayed and canceled projects as a sign of recent success. -Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canadian oil sands down to the U.S. Gulf Coast, isn’t just an infrastructure project. It’s also a symbol for the fight over the future of energy.

Infographic: How Tar Sands Oil Is Produced
Producing oil from Alberta’s tar sands emits more pollution than traditional oil drilling, so many environmentalists want that crude left in the ground. And more broadly, they want the world to turn away from climate-changing fossil fuels toward cleaner forms of energy, like wind and solar.

Mike Hudema, who works with Greenpeace Canada as a climate and energy campaigner, is one of those activists. He says he sympathizes with people who need jobs: He has family members who work in Alberta’s oil fields. Still, Hudema considers it a victory when big oil companies announce delays in new oil sands projects.

Last September, Norway’s Statoil postponed one project for at least three years. Before that, French oil giant Total S.A. shelved a planned project.

“Total cancelled its multi-billion-dollar tar sands project,” Hudema says, “And they’ve stated fairly openly that part of the reason for the cancellation is because of lack of pipeline capacity.”

Canadian Regulators Investigate Mysterious Tar Sands Spills
The Keystone XL pipeline is one project that would boost capacity. And companies do say the ability to transport crude out of Canada is one reason they delay projects. But there are other reasons that are just as important, says Greg Stringham, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

“It hasn’t been one single pipeline that has been the cause of that re-evaluation,” he says. “It has been labor; it has been competitiveness; it has been the corporate decisions.”

Those corporate decisions include the question of where a global company will choose to invest its money. And today — especially with low oil prices — it’s not hard to find more lucrative investments.

What You Need To Know About The Keystone XL Oil Pipeline
The Keystone XL approval delay is just one setback for an industry Stringham says has a bright future. Canada’s oil sands produced more than 2 million barrels of crude per day last year.

New projects are in the works, Stringham says, and output will grow.

“It is to the point where it has gone from just a Canadian industry to a North American industry and we’re on the verge of moving it to a global industry,” he says.

So, Stringham says, companies aren’t waiting for the Keystone XL pipeline. There are other ways to move oil: trains, barges and alternate pipelines. He says as long as the U.S. and the world wants oil, Alberta will find a way to supply it.

For opponents who want to keep that oil in the ground, like Hudema at Greenpeace, that means more battles ahead.

“When we talk about tar sands development we’re talking about going against the biggest carbon bullies on the plant,” Hudema says. “Every major multinational oil company is involved in this development.”

Comparing their resources to his, Hudema says he thinks environmental groups are doing a pretty good job. And every day that Alberta’s tar sands oil stays in the ground is another victory.

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Trains Plus Crude Oil Equals Trouble Along the Tracks

Government and industry are playing catch-up with long-overdue safety improvements, like redesigning tank cars and rebuilding tracks and bridges.

By Curtis Tate   McClatchy Washington Bureau   January 5, 2015
in Emergency Management Magazine

http://www.emergencymgmt.com/disaster/Trains-Plus-Crude-Oil-Equals-Trouble-Along-the-Tracks.html

US_NEWS_RAIL-SAFETY_3_WA

CSX personnel train local firefighters on the basics of responding to a train derailment in Richmond, Va. (Curtis Tate/McClatchy DC/TNS)

(TNS) — Every day, strings of black tank cars filled with crude oil roll slowly across a long wooden railroad bridge over the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The 116-year-old bridge is a landmark in this city of 95,000 people, home to the University of Alabama. Residents have proposed and gotten married next to the bridge. Children play under it. During Alabama football season, Crimson Tide fans set up camp in its shadow.

But with some timber pilings so badly rotted that you can stick your hand through them, and a combination of plywood, concrete and plastic pipe employed to patch up others, the bridge shows the limited ability of government and industry to manage the hidden risks of a sudden shift in energy production.

And it shows why communities nationwide are in danger.

“It may not happen today or tomorrow, but one day a town or a city is going to get wiped out,” said Larry Mann, one of the foremost authorities on rail safety, who, as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill in 1970, was the principal author of the Federal Railroad Safety Act.

Almost overnight in 2010, trains began crisscrossing the country carrying an energy bounty that includes millions of gallons of crude oil and ethanol. Tens of thousands of tank cars and a 140,000-mile network of rail lines emerged as a practically way to move these commodities. But few thought to step back and take a hard look at the industry’s readiness for the job.

Government and industry are playing catch-up with long-overdue safety improvements, like redesigning tank cars and rebuilding tracks and bridges.

Those efforts in the past year and a half may have saved lives and property in many communities. But they came too late for Lac-Megantic, Quebec, a lakeside resort town just across the Canadian border from Maine. A train derailment there on July 6, 2013, unleashed a torrent of burning crude oil into the town’s center. Forty-seven people were killed.

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How crude-by-rail – and other debates – are censored

By Lois Kazakoff   January 2, 2015    sfgate.com

 HOW THE CRUDE-BY-RAIL DEBATE IS CENSORED

Valero seeks to modify its Benicia refinery to bring in two 50-car
trains a day of crude oil.

When I wrote in November about how the mayor of Benicia was
effectively muzzled from speaking about a pending city decision
with nationwide importance, I thought the debate was over climate
change. Now I learn the real concern is over democracy itself.

My Nov. 18 blog post concerned the City Council’s decision to
make public an opinion on whether the mayor should be allowed
to speak freely with voters about Valero’s application to convert
its Benicia refinery to receive crude from the Baaken Oil Shale by
rail. The decision is huge because fracking the crude is only
profitable if the oil can reach refineries and the global market.
Benicia’s refinery and port are key components to success.

Locally, Benicians and Californians living along the rail lines are
fearful of train cars filled with the highly volatile crude rumbling
through their communities twice a day. It’s a highly charged
dispute that has drawn in Attorney General Kamala Harris,
who chastised the city for only studying the effects on Benicia
and not the effects along the entire rail line through California.

When the City Council voted to make public the opinion,
written by an attorney hired by the city attorney, the decision
was Mayor Elizabeth Patterson had overstepped her bounds.

Why? Because local politicians can advocate for new laws,
but when they are holding a public hearing or ruling on a
permit —acting more like judges than legislators — the permit
applicant’s right to appear before an unbiased body trumps
the legislator’s right to freely express an opinion.

Peter Scheer, the executive director of the First Amendment
Coalition, writes in Sunday’s Insight section that this growing
practice of advising City Council members to censor themselves
is deleterious not just to political debate over important and
engaging local issues but to democracy. By giving City Councils
this dual role and then advising them to censor their own speech,
we discourage civic participation  on the concerns constituents
care about most.

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Trains plus oil equals trouble on the tracks

[A most excellent piece of reporting! – Editor]

By Curtis Tate   The News Tribune   Tuscaloosa, AL

http://www.mcclatchydc.com/static/features/Trains+Oil/Trouble-down-the-track.html?brand=tnt

— Every day, strings of black tank cars filled with crude oil roll slowly across a long wooden railroad bridge over the Black Warrior River.
Decaying track and bridge conditions on the Alabama southern railroad could pose a risk to Tuscaloosa, Ala., population 95,000. Above, video of trains crossing the bridge.
CURTIS TATE / MCCLATCHY Decaying track and bridge conditions
on the Alabama southern railroad could pose a risk to Tuscaloosa,
Ala., population 95,000. Above, video of trains crossing the bridge.

The 116-year-old span is a landmark in this city of 95,000 people, home to the University of Alabama. Residents have proposed and gotten married next to the bridge. Children play under it. During Alabama football season, die-hard Crimson Tide fans set up camp in its shadow.And it shows why communities nationwide are in danger.

But with some timber pilings so badly rotted that you can stick your hand right through them, and a “MacGyver”-esque combination of plywood, concrete and plastic pipe employed to patch up others, the bridge demonstrates the limited ability of government and industry to manage the hidden risks of a sudden shift in energy production.

“It may not happen today or tomorrow, but one day a town or a city is going to get wiped out,” said Larry Mann, one of the foremost authorities on rail safety, who as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill in 1970 was the principal author of the Federal Railroad Safety Act, which authorized the government to regulate the safety of railroads.

Almost overnight in 2010, trains began crisscrossing the country carrying an energy bounty that included millions of gallons of crude oil and ethanol. The nation’s fleet of tens of thousands of tank cars, coupled with a 140,000-mile network of rail lines, had emerged as a viable way to move these economically essential commodities. But few thought to step back and take a hard look at the industry’s readiness for the job.

It may not happen today or tomorrow, but one day a town or a city is going to get wiped out.

Larry Mann, principal author of the Federal Railroad Safety Act

In a series of stories, McClatchy has detailed how government and industry are playing catch-up to long-overdue safety improvements, from redesigning the tank cars that carry the oil to rebuilding the track and bridges over which the trains run.

Those efforts in the past year and a half may have spared life and property in many communities. But they came too late for Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, a Canadian lakeside resort town just across the border from Maine. A train derailment there on July 6, 2013, unleashed a torrent of burning crude oil into the town’s center. Forty-seven people were killed.

“Sometimes it takes a disaster to get elected officials and agencies to address problems that were out there,” said Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, a member of the House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials, who’s leaving Congress after six terms.

Other subsequent but nonfatal derailments in Aliceville, Ala., Casselton, N.D., and Lynchburg, Va., followed a familiar pattern: massive fires and spills, large-scale evacuations and local officials furious that they hadn’t been informed beforehand of such shipments.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will issue a set of new rules in January regarding the transportation of flammable liquids by rail.

“Safety is our top priority,” said Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration,“both in the rule-making and through other immediate actions we have taken over the last year and a half.”

Nevertheless, McClatchy has identified other gaps in the oversight of crude by rail:

  • The Federal Railroad Administration entrusts bridge inspections to the railroads and doesn’t keep data on their condition, unlike its sister agency, the Federal Highway Administration, which does so for road bridges.
  • Most states don’t employ dedicated railroad bridge inspectors. Only California has begun developing a bridge inspection program.
  • The U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale region posed an elevated risk in rail transport, so regulators required railroads to notify state officials of large shipments of Bakken crude. However, the requirement excluded other kinds of oil increasingly transported by rail, including those from Canada, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.
  • While railroads and refiners have taken steps to reserve the newest, sturdiest tank cars available for Bakken trains, they, too, have ruptured in derailments, and Bakken and other kinds of oil are likely to be moving around the country in a mix of older and newer cars for several more years.

 

Staying power

American railroads moved only 9,500 cars of crude oil in 2008 but more than 400,000 in 2013, according to industry figures. In the first seven months of 2014, trains carried 759,000 barrels a day – that’s more than 200,000 cars altogether – or 8 percent of the country’s oil production, according to the federalEnergy Information Administration.

The energy boom, centered on North Dakota’s Bakken region, was made possible by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a horizontal drilling method that unlocks oil and gas trapped in rock formations. It was also made possible by the nation’s expansive rail system.

Crude by rail has become a profitable business for some of the world’s richest men. Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, bought BNSF Railway in 2009. It’s since become the nation’s leading hauler of crude oil in trains. Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist, is the largest shareholder in Canadian National, the only rail company that has a direct route from oil-rich western Canada to the refinery-rich Gulf Coast.

Amid a worldwide slide in oil prices in recent weeks, crude by rail shows few signs of slowing down. The price per barrel of oil has dropped nearly 50 percent since last January. Still, the six largest North American railroads reported hauling a record 38,775 carloads of petroleum the second week of December.

“We anticipate that crude by rail is going to stay over the long term,” said Kevin Birn, director at IHS Energy, an energy information and analysis firm, and a co-author of a recent analysis of the trend.

Regulatory agencies and the rail industry may not have anticipated the sudden increase in crude oil moving by rail. However, government and industry had long known that most of the tank cars pressed into crude oil service had poor safety records. And after 180 years in business, U.S. railroads knew that track defects were a leading cause of derailments.

To be sure, railroads are taking corrective steps, including increased track inspections and reduced train speeds. They’ve endorsed stronger tank cars and funded beefed-up training for first responders.

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s principal trade group, said railroads began a “top-to-bottom review” of their operations after the Quebec accident.

“Every time there is an incident, the industry learns from what occurred and takes steps to address it through ongoing investments into rail infrastructure, as well as cutting-edge research and development,” he said. “The industry is committed to continuous improvement in actively moving forward at making rail transportation even safer.”

But the industry continues to resist other changes, including calls for more transparency. The dominant Eastern railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX, sued Maryland to stop the state from releasing information to McClatchy about crude oil trains.

The industry also seeks affirmation from the courts that only the federal government has the power to regulate railroads. The dominant Western carriers, BNSF and Union Pacific, joined by the Association of American Railroads, sued California over a state law that requires them to develop comprehensive oil spill-response plans.

The railroads, used to keeping such information close to the vest, asked state officials to sign nondisclosure agreements treating the reports as confidential and limiting their release to those with “a need to know.”

Some states initially agreed, and the Transportation Department voiced no objections. Others, however, declined to sign the agreements, finding no reason to exempt the oil train reports from their open-records laws.

Since June, McClatchy has obtained full or partial Bakken train reports from 22 states. The reports show an estimated range of how many Bakken trains pass through each county each week, and the routes they use. Some states, such as Virginia and New York, released all the details. Illinois, however, didn’t reveal the routes. Alabama and New Jersey disclosed only the counties, not the routes or frequency.

Having lost the fight in California, Washington state and elsewhere, some railroads continued to press their case in other states that the reports were security and commercially sensitive. After the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency denied McClatchy’s request in July, McClatchy appealed the decision to the state’s Office of Open Records.

In October, the open records office ordered the emergency management agency to release the records. Days later, the agency posted them, in full, on its website.

In July, the Maryland Department of the Environment was about to release the Bakken reports to McClatchy when two railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX, sued the state to block the release.

The Federal Railroad Administration all but put the issue to rest in October. In guidance published in the Federal Register, the agency said no federal law protected the Bakken train reports from public disclosure and that the information they contained was neither security nor commercially sensitive.

Delaware, West Virginia, Idaho and Tennessee, which denied McClatchy’s requests outright, haven’t reconsidered since the federal guidance. Texas has made no decision on how much information, if any, to release.

Greenberg, of the Association of American Railroads, said the industry remained concerned that publicly releasing the information “elevates security risks by making it easier for someone intent on causing harm.” The reports “should remain with local, state and federal emergency responders,” he added.

Mapped out, the reports show concentrated streams of Bakken traffic radiating from North Dakota to the Mid-Atlantic, Gulf Coast and Pacific Northwest. The reports do not, however, show smaller quantities of Bakken or any quantity of other kinds of crude oil shipped by rail. Individual railroads may be notifying emergency responders of such cargoes, but at least for now, they aren’t required to do so.

The Federal Railroad Administration has sought comment on whether the reporting threshold should be lower and include other types of crude oil.

Thompson, the railroad administration spokesman, said the May emergency order was meant to be “a powerful but narrowly constructed tool to address an imminent hazard,” the one presented by Bakken crude.

“It was and remains an interim step in our ongoing effort to ensure the safe transport of crude by rail,” he said.

RISK ON THE RAILSThe U.S. government’s failure to anticipate potential problems with transporting highly flammable crude oil along aging railways has resulted in deadly and dangerous derailments from Quebec to Alabama.

In the dark

In March, emergency response officials in Sacramento, Calif., were stunned to learn that the decommissioned McClellan Air Force Base on the city’s northwest side had become a transfer point for crude oil.

After a McClatchy reporter told him about the facility, the city’s interim fire chief sent his battalion chief and a hazardous materials inspector to the site, where they found 22 tank cars loaded with crude oil. The facility had been operating for several months, without the knowledge of local fire chiefs or the county emergency manager. It had also been operating without a permit from theSacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, apparently in violation of California’s strict environmental laws.

The same week McClatchy’s Sacramento Bee published a story in late March revealing its existence, the facility received a permit to transfer 11 million gallons of crude oil a month from trains to trucks.

In September, EarthJustice, a San Francisco-based environmental group, sued the air quality management district, challenging its decision to issue the permit without public comment or an environmental impact review.

In October, Sacramento County’s top air-quality official rescinded the permit, acknowledging that its approval was a mistake. The McClellan transfer operation shut down in mid-November.

Two or three Bakken trains a month are moving through California’s capital to other destinations, and area officials are bracing for a big increase: TheCalifornia Energy Commission projects that rail could deliver 22 percent of the state’s petroleum needs in a few years.

In response to growing concern about emergency preparedness amid the rise in crude by rail, the industry established a special training program at its research and testing facility in Pueblo, Colo.

Since classes began in July, the nation’s largest railroads have spent $5 million to train 1,500 emergency response personnel at the school. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., persuaded the Federal Emergency Management Agency to contribute another $5 million to continue the program.

“Our emergency responders are often our first line of defense – and they usually do it without pay,” Heitkamp said Monday in a statement. “It’s on all of us to make sure they have the training and resources they need to protect our families and communities.”

Individual railroads also bring training to many communities along their routes. CSX, for example, just concluded an 18-city tour with its Safety Train, a mobile classroom that educates first responders on the basics of responding to rail accidents. The railroad said 2,200 personnel from 350 departments had participated.

But the training may have its limits.

The National Fire Protection Association estimated that in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were about 1.1 million firefighters spread across 30,000 departments. More than 800,000 of them were volunteers. Nationwide, volunteer departments have turnover rates of 20 percent to 50 percent.

Steve LoPresti, the hazmat chief for Montgomery County EMS in suburban Philadelphia, said his department was all-volunteer. The department has a “robust” training schedule, he said, and has worked with other agencies as well as railroads hauling crude oil through the county.

But it can be tough for volunteers to take the time off for training, even if someone else pays for it.

“They have full-time jobs, maybe part-time jobs,” LoPresti said. “They’re family men. They have other responsibilities.”

Lac-Mégantic showed the enormous risk that even the best-trained firefighters might face. In Senate testimony last April, Tim Pellerin, a Maine fire chief whose department assisted its Quebec neighbor, said it had taken 1,000 firefighters from 80 departments on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border 30 hours, a million gallons of water and 8,000 gallons of firefighting foam to bring the massive blaze under control.

Rick Edinger, assistant chief of the Chesterfield County, Va., Fire and EMS department and a hazardous materials expert who testified on oil train fires at the National Transportation Safety Board in April, said in an interview that most departments were capable of responding to an incident involving a 9,000-gallon gasoline tanker truck. But one rail car can hold as much as 30,000 gallons. A 100-car oil train could contain 3 million

“Once you reach that point of no return,” he said, “it doesn’t matter what the volume is.”

Unheeded warnings

A common thread runs through the Lac-Mégantic, Aliceville and Casselton derailments: the workhorse DOT-111 tank car. The NTSB has been warning about it for decades.

The car is minimally reinforced and has a well-documented tendency to puncture or rupture in derailments.

A series of explosions from the late 1960s to the late 1970s killed dozens of people, including railroad workers and first responders, prompting an overhaul of the pressurized tank cars then used to haul flammable and toxic gases with many of the same features under discussion now.

The problems subsided by the early 1980s. But unlike those cars, the DOT-111 wasn’t similarly retrofitted. And it continued to fail catastrophically in derailments that involved flammable or poisonous liquids, as three decades of NTSB accident reports reviewed by McClatchy demonstrate.

Many of those accidents – from Newark, N.J., in 1981 to Dunsmuir, Calif., in 1991 to Baltimore in 2001– were caused by track defects or human error. But in report after report, the NTSB warned that the design of the DOT-111 tank car increased the severity of these accidents.

About a decade ago, railroads began transporting large volumes of ethanol, a renewable, highly flammable alternative fuel. Rail transportation of ethanol grew over several years, peaking at 360,000 carloads in 2011. At least seven fiery derailments from 2006 to 2012 involving ethanol transported in DOT-111 cars sent another warning.

In June 2009, a Canadian National train derailed on washed-out track at a road crossing at Cherry Valley, Ill. Multiple DOT-111 tank cars punctured, spilling more than 300,000 gallons of ethanol. A woman was killed when the massive blaze engulfed her vehicle at the crossing.

The Association of American Railroads petitioned the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in March 2011 for an improved tank car design. About a year later, then-NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman wrote Cynthia Quarterman, who was then the head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, pleading for improvements to the DOT-111. In her reply, Quarterman concurred with Hersman but expressed concerns about the cost.

Two months after Lac-Mégantic went up in flames in July 2013, Quarterman’s agency released its Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the first step in the usually lengthy process.

Last July, the Transportation Department proposed a 2017 deadline to phase out or retrofit the DOT-111 fleet. But for now, the car is ubiquitous in crude oil and ethanol trains nationwide.

Among other steps taken by the department this year, the Federal Railroad Administration’s Thompson noted that it had “issued a safety advisory requesting companies to take all possible steps to avoid using DOT-111 tank cars when transporting Bakken crude.”

That wasn’t enough to satisfy environmental groups, which petitioned the Transportation Department for an immediate ban on DOT-111 cars hauling Bakken crude oil. When the department denied the petition, the groups sued.

Railroads generally don’t own the tank cars used to transport oil by train.

Since the more recent high-profile accidents, many refiners have opted to go with the higher standard the rail industry adopted voluntarily in 2011, with thicker shells and extra shielding on the ends of the cars, as well as features that protect top and bottom valves in case of a derailment.

BNSF and Canadian Pacific, two of the biggest Bakken haulers, have imposed surcharges on crude oil shippers who use pre-2011 tank cars.

However, the oil and rail industry’s principal trade groups have requested that regulators give them more time to phase out the cars. Under both government and industry proposals, the cars with the fewest protections could remain in crude oil service through 2020.

The $1.1 trillion spending bill Congress approved in December contains a requirement that the DOT issue its final rule by Jan. 15.

Even the newer cars have vulnerabilities. Post-2011 cars involved in a derailment last January in New Augusta, Miss., spilled 50,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude.

So did at least one newer car in Lynchburg, which released its entire contents of Bakken crude into the James River, most of which burned. The city’s downtown was spared.

Some of the most vocal advocates for a more aggressive timeline for retrofitting or retiring the DOT-111 fleet are elected leaders in cities and towns. Karen Darch, the village president of Barrington, Ill., a Chicago suburb, has testified on Capitol Hill and submitted comments to regulators. Two busy rail lines intersect in her community, and trains carrying crude oil and ethanol pass within feet of homes, businesses and schools.

“We have people who are, quite literally, sitting ducks,” she said.

The repairs I see them making right now are more like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound

John Wathen, environmentalist

On April 30, 2014, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va. No one was injured or killed but three tank cars went into the James River spilling 30,000 gallons of oil and igniting a fire. Above, video of trains outside Lynchburg on a normal day.

CURTIS TATE / MCCLATCHY On April 30, 2014, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va. No one was injured or killed but three tank cars went into the James River spilling 30,000 gallons of oil and igniting a fire. Above, video of trains outside Lynchburg on a normal day.

CURTIS TATE / MCCLATCHY

On April 30, 2014, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va. No one was injured or killed but three tank cars went into the James River spilling 30,000 gallons of oil and igniting a fire. Above, video of trains outside Lynchburg on a normal day.

Repeated violations

In Tuscaloosa, repairs are underway on the century-old bridge. But its condition had received less attention from local, state and federal authorities, and the railroad that maintains it, before crude oil trains began rolling over its rotting timbers in 2013.

The local industrial development authority gave $785,000 in tax abatements to the Hunt Refining Co. to build a two-track rail terminal capable of unloading 600,000 gallons of crude oil a day at its Tuscaloosa refinery.

Mike Smith, a lawyer for the agency, said its jurisdiction didn’t extend beyond the refinery and that it had no authority to evaluate the condition of, or require repairs to, the rail infrastructure that leads to it. A spokeswoman for Hunt, based in Houston, declined to comment.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management quickly approved Hunt’s permits to build and operate the terminal, with no public comment or review. A spokesman for the department didn’t return multiple phone calls seeking comment.

The Federal Railroad Administration doesn’t inspect bridges. That responsibility rests with the railroad.

The Alabama Southern Railroad, which is owned by Watco, a company headquartered in Pittsburg, Kan., maintains the Tuscaloosa bridge and the track that runs across it. Regulators have cited the company many times over the years for safety violations. Federal Railroad Administration inspection reports obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that inspectors recommended penalties for Alabama Southern 15 times from January 2006 to September 2013.

In June, an Alabama Southern train carrying crude oil derailed in Buhl, Ala., about 12 miles west of Tuscaloosa. Though nothing spilled, seven battered tank cars remained on the ground for the next two months, a short distance from people’s front porches.

Tracie VanBecelaere, a Watco spokeswoman, said the company would invest as much as $17 million over three years in new rail, ties and ballast on the 62-mile Alabama Southern line between Tuscaloosa and Columbus, Miss.

In late October, bundles of new crossties lined the track near a road crossing in Northport, across the river from Tuscaloosa. Tie replacements “will continue for several months,” VanBecelaere said.

She said the track was inspected more than federal law required and was checked ultrasonically for internal defects twice a year.

The old bridge is getting a $2.5 million overhaul as part of the same project, VanBecelaere said. She said it had passed an inspection over the summer.

John Wathen, an environmentalist who’s been monitoring the condition of the rail infrastructure around Tuscaloosa for the past year, wonders whether it’s enough.

“The repairs I see them making right now are more like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” he said .

Nothing would have survived within the fire footprint. We’ve seen that already.

John Wathen, environmentalist

Potential for disaster

October is a busy time in Tuscaloosa, with Alabama football season in full swing. One home-game weekend this year, there were no hotel rooms available within 50 miles of the city. Tuscaloosa’s population expands on home game days. The university’s Bryant-Denny Stadium can hold more than 100,000 fans.

The railroad bridge is perhaps more than a mile from the stadium, as the crow flies. Across the river in Northport, a whole encampment of recreational vehicles owned by football fans sits just 50 feet from the structure. The city council allows the tailgaters to park their campers there for the season’s duration.

The 7,500-seat Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, which recently hosted Mary J. Blige and the Doobie Brothers, sits near the bridge on the opposite bank. The Oliver Lock and Dam, a popular fishing spot, is about half a mile downriver.

Thousands more people descend on Northport in October for the annualKentuck Festival of the Arts.

Most Tuscaloosa residents know about the bridge and some have stories about how it intersects with their lives. But few know about the hazardous cargoes that creep across it in slow-moving trains, and with them the potential for disaster.

And Tuscaloosa knows disaster. On April 27, 2011, a powerful tornado, with winds of 190 mph, ripped through the city, chewing up neighborhoods, schools and shopping centers. Of the 65 Alabamians killed by the tornado that day, 52 were in Tuscaloosa.

For Wathen, a big worry is that if an oil train derailed on or near the bridge, it wouldn’t take long for the spilled cargo to reach the Black Warrior River. Once it reached the dam, Wathen said, it would be virtually impossible to clean up, no matter what kind of oil it was.

“It would be an environmental catastrophe,” he said.

Wathen has other fears, as well. In addition to the 47 fatalities, the derailment and fire in Lac-Mégantic destroyed 50 buildings, consuming the heart of the city’s business district.

“Lay that footprint over Tuscaloosa or Northport,” Wathen said. “Nothing would have survived within the fire footprint. We’ve seen that already.”

Email: ctate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

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A crude proposal: The pros and cons of a controversial Phillips 66 oil-by-rail project

BY RHYS HEYDEN   newtimesslo.com    December 31, 2014

http://www.newtimesslo.com/cover/11850/a-crude-proposal-the-pros-and-cons-of-a-controversial-phillips-66-oilbyrail-project/

When viewed from the proper angle, the central conflict here bears a peculiar type of poetic symmetry: A local refinery would like to transport much of its crude oil into San Luis Obispo County via train, while opponents would prefer such plans to be driven out of the county on a rail.

Many stakeholders adamantly support the project, while many locals virulently oppose the proposed rail spur that would allow this transportation method to materialize. There are plenty of lawyers involved and lots of money tied up in each side of the issue, and the project itself reaches far beyond the borders of SLO County.

Originally proposed in mid-2013, the Phillips 66 rail spur extension project has remained largely unchanged: Succinctly put, the company wants to begin construction of a rail spur at its Santa Maria Refinery in Nipomo, thereby giving the facility the newfound ability to receive oil via rail.

It’s a project that appears simple on the surface, but gains layers of complexity the closer one looks. It also touches on several national issues: railroad safety, energy independence, and regulation vs. free enterprise, to name a few.

Ultimately, SLO County officials will likely be making vital yea or nay decisions about the Phillips 66 rail spur extension project in the next few months.

New Times spoke with many stakeholders and experts; examined documents, reports, and public comments; and traveled to Nipomo, all in the interest of answering the basics: What is this project, and why should SLO County residents support or oppose it?

The project

The primary thrust of the rail spur project is fairly simple: construction of a rail spur facility that would allow the refinery in Nipomo to receive crude oil via rail. Currently, the facility receives oil only by pipeline.

Continue reading

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Local Emergency Plans Stall Out For Trains Transporting Bakken Crude Oil In The Bay Area, Part 3 Of 3

KCBS Cover Story Special, Part 3 of 3, Produced by Giancarlo Rulli

http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2014/12/31/emergency-plans-stall-out-for-trains-transporting-bakken-crude-oil-in-the-bay-area-part-3-of-3/

The Alhambra Trestle in Martinez. (Jeffrey Schaub/CBS)

The Alhambra Trestle in Martinez. (Jeffrey Schaub/CBS)

KCBS reporter Jeffrey Shaub and producer Giancarlo Rulli investigate the Bay Area’s aging railway bridges that will carry increasing loads of highly volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota in this three-part KCBS Cover Story Special.

Hear the entire three-part cover story series.

MARTINEZ (KCBS) – In May, U.S. transportation officials ordered the nation’s rail companies to disclose information to emergency responders on the routes and number of trains carrying a highly volatile crude oil through the Bay Area and elsewhere.

But some Bay Area and California officials claim the railroads are dragging their feet, stalling efforts to come with an emergency plan in case of a major disaster on the tracks.

According to the BNSF Railway, every 7-10 days, a 100-car long train carrying Bakken crude oil make sits way through Contra Costa County over the Alhambra trestle in Martinez.

Residents Bill Nichols and Jim Neu are among the many who have serious concerns. “The scary thing about the crude, it already has a proven track record of catastrophic accidents,” said Nichols. “These are ticking time bombs waiting to go off. If there was ever a derailment, it would affect the town with major casualties,” Neu said.

Contra Costa County Fire Protection District Marshal Robert Marshall worries about a train derailing from that height. “If you drop something from that height, it’s going to create a lot of damage.”

Marshall said he’s been working to create an emergency response plan, but needs to know how many trains are coming and when. But he said the state Office of Emergency Services can’t tell him. State OES Deputy Director Kelly Huston said that’s because the railroads haven’t provided him with that information.

“We’d love to be able to look it up online like an Amtrak schedule and be able to tell specifically when a terrain is coming through, where it’s going and give that direct access to local first responders,” Huston said.

KCBS has learned that BNSF sent a confidential letter to the Office of Emergency Services in September, informing them that Contra Costa County will see at least a 25 percent increase in Bakken fuel trains. But BNSF refused to say exactly how many and when, citing federal regulations and that they consider the information to be a confidential trade secret.

Bay Area Congressman John Garamendi disagrees. “It must be made available to the local emergency response agencies,” Garamendi said.

BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent said the company’s track record of moving hazardous materials speaks for itself.

“We handle all of our commodities with safety at the forefront. It’s far safer to move hazardous materials over our nation’s railroads then on our nation’s highways,” she said.

But longtime Martinez City Councilman Mark Ross said the railroad needs to be a better partner by being transparent and ensuring public safety. “Why don’t you get ahead of it, let’s work with government, work with the cities and communities that you’re running through, and solve the problem now.”

 

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