By Jessica Corbett
In a move that outraged environmentalists and increased the chances of deadly and destructive accidents, the Trump administration's Department of Transportation (DOT) has repealed an Obama-era rule that mandated safety upgrades for "dangerous" oil tanker trains to reduce the possibility of derailments, explosions and spills.
"This commonsense rule was put in place in response to a series of deadly accidents, and this shameless decision to repeal it will mean more workers and communities are put at risk," declared Sierra Club Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign director Kelly Martin.
The rule required trains carrying oil and other flammable materials—sometimes called "bomb trains"—to install electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes that decrease the likelihood of derailment by 2021.
While it was initially criticized by green groups that said it did not go far enough to protect communities, the Monday reversal was regarded as yet another move by the administration to appease polluters at the expense of the public.
"Apparently there's no limit to the lengths the Trump administration will go," Martin said, "to prioritize the desires of polluting industries over the health and safety of the American people."
The repeal was initially proposed in December of 2017, but finalized by the DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) on Monday. PHMSA claimed that a congressionally-mandated analysis concluded "that the expected costs of requiring ECP brakes would be significantly higher than the expected benefits of the requirement." The change does not prevent railroads from using ECP brakes but the safety upgrade is no longer mandated.
"The electronically controlled brakes would have been a long-awaited safety improvement," Fred Millar, an independent consultant specializing in chemical safety and transport, told BuzzFeed News.
By repealing the safety requirement, Millar added, "the cost will be borne by the people who die or are injured or who have terrible property damage."
Perhaps of the most high-profile derailment in recent years occurred in Quebec in 2013. A train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded, destroying the small downtown of Lac-Mégantic and killing 47 people. Five years after the tragedy, CBC reported in July, rail safety advocates say the Canadian government also has not done enough to prevent future disasters.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.
By Justin Mikulka
In the five years since the oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, claimed 47 lives, the world has learned much about the risks that hauling oil by rail poses. One of the clearest lessons is how little has been done to address those risks, which means that deadly event could easily happen again.
To mark the anniversary, Kathleen Fox, chair of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada, released a statement on oil-by-rail. "Much has been accomplished in the intervening years, but more remains to be done," she said.
Fox is correct about one thing: More remains to be done. Much more.
Here are three main reasons history may yet repeat itself.
[Read this explainer for background on what unfolded during the fiery early morning hours of July 6, 2013 in Lac-Mégantic.]
Reason #1: Inadequate Safety Regulations
The Bakken shale oil carried on the runaway train that decimated the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic is a very light and highly volatile crude oil that ignites easily. Despite many calls for regulations in the U.S. to make that oil safer via a process known as stabilization—including from Obama's Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, the issue of stabilizing oil volatility on trains remains unaddressed on either side of the border.
Similar concerns are arising for trains shipping oil from Alberta (home of the tar sands) after multiple derailed trains have resulted in fires and explosions reminiscent of those involving Bakken oil.
Another apparent safety gap in regulations involves the outdated brake systems on oil trains, which is the case in both the U.S. and Canada. Rail experts have testified repeatedly that modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes would be a huge improvement over the current air braking system that was considered revolutionary in the 19th century. When the U.S. Department of Transportation released an overhaul of rules governing oil trains in 2015, ECP brakes were among the requirements. However, that measure was repealed in late 2017 due to intense industry pressure.
An important point to keep in mind here is that all of the major oil-by-rail carriers (BNSF, CSX, CN, CP) move oil from both the U.S. and Canada, which leads to something known as harmonization in the regulations. Because the trains couldn't easily cross the border if the rules were different in each country, the regulatory agencies in both must work together to ensure harmonization.
Canada's TSB Chair Fox noted in her recent remarks that the DOT-111 tank cars, which were carrying the oil that destroyed part of Lac-Mégantic are no longer permitted to move crude oil, in either Canada or the U.S. Those tank cars clearly were unsafe for transporting flammable liquids—something they were never designed to do.
However, Fox also noted that rail companies have until 2025 to phase in the new rail tank cars that will replace DOT-111s, and progress on that transition has been slow. The 2015 oil train rules mandate stricter standards for rail tank cars carrying hazardous materials, which means rail companies have a decade to switch to new DOT-117 cars. Yet Fox does not address the real issue at play with tank cars.
The real problem is that DOT-117 tank cars are also proving inadequate for moving oil safely, as evidenced when an oil train of cars meeting the new standards derailed in Iowa in June 2018. Many of the cars ruptured, resulting in a spill of 230,000 gallons of oil into a flooded Iowa river. These new DOT-117 tank cars don't appear to offer any real safety benefits over the older cars. They may look nicer with the new paint and lack of grafitti, but that seems to be the only demonstrable improvement.
DOT-117 tank cars, the new rail cars that are slowly replacing the DOT-111 cars carrying oil. Justin Mikulka
Another gap involves an automatic braking technology known as positive train control (PTC), which was first recommended in 1970. The rail industry resisted moving forward with PTC for almost 40 years until 2008 when Congress mandated that rail companies install PTC on all trains, passenger and freight, by 2015. Despite the congressional mandate, the industry refused to cooperate.
Instead, the rail industry threatened to shut down the U.S. economy if required to fulfill the legislative requirement. In response, Congress granted the industry a three year extension. As the third year of that extension winds down, the largest oil-by-rail company, BNSF, has asked for another two year extension.
Why would rail companies refuse to implement this well-known safety technology that reportedly could have saved nearly 300 lives between 1969 and 2015? Because it costs money to implement and it only costs a fraction of that money to hire lobbyists to fight the regulations.
That priority was starkly revealed in a 2015 story by The Intercept, which reports that during a 2009 investor call, a Wall Street analyst told rail executives they need to do more to "further educate" Congress about why the PTC mandate was unacceptable.
That exchange occurred six years before the industry was required to implement PTC, giving rail companies plenty of time to hire lobbyists to argue against implementing a safety technology now almost 50 years after it was first recommended.
Yet another example of a regulatory gap in rail safety measures stretches back to Lac-Mégantic, which involved a runaway train parked on a hill above the town. Corporate cost cutting and a lack of rules to prevent runaway trains helped lead to the 47 lives lost in that town. In her statement reflecting on the five years since the disaster, TSB Chair Fox mentions that "the issue of additional physical defenses, which the TSB has called for to help prevent uncontrolled movements, has yet to be sufficiently addressed."
"Additional physical defenses" are ramps or locks placed in front of a train to prevent it from running away in the event something else goes wrong. A simple and proven solution. But starting and stopping trains with these safety devices in place takes longer, and because time is money in the rail industry, companies generally don't use them.
Despite being one of the easiest problems to solve, runaway trains, or "uncontrolled movements," are increasing since Lac-Mégantic. CBC News reported that Faye Ackerman, a TSB board member, noted the situation is getting worse. "… in the last five years, the number of these uncontrolled movements has been on the rise," Ackerman said.
In June 2017, an event eerily similar to Lac-Mégantic (minus the explosion and fatalities) unfolded when a 72 car train was not properly braked and ran away for "five kilometres onto a busy track just north of Toronto."
There are many factors that could eliminate runaway trains. The train in Lac-Mégantic had back-up braking systems, but no rules require their use and the company policy was to not use them. In addition, positive train control could also prevent runaway trains, and modern ECP brakes would also help. But the simplest solution would be the "additional physical defenses" that Fox referred to.
Reason #2: Oil Trains Derail More Often
Another lesson revealed in the wake of Lac-Mégantic is that oil trains derail more often than similar trains carrying ethanol, another hazardous material. The reason is likely because oil trains tend to be longer and heavier and may be subject to more sloshing forces from the liquid moving inside the not-entirely-full tank cars. Unlike tanker trucks or other types of trains, oil trains don't have to be weighed, and some evidence indicates rail companies may be overfilling oil train cars beyond the current weight limits. And no regulations exist dictating the train lengths safe for transporting flammable materials like oil.
Of course, longer and heavier trains make more money for railroads. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal notes that one of the reasons the rail industry is shifting to ever-longer trains is due to pressure from "activist investors." Activist investors—much like the one who told industry executives they need to lobby against positive train control—apparently are calling the shots about how companies operate their trains.
Given the lack of real safety improvements after Lac-Mégantic, this issue is not going away. Canada just reported record levels of oil-by-rail movements for April of this year. And that number is likely to increase significantly in the next several years, as the oil industry there continues to face pipeline constraints. U.S. oil-by-rail movements are increasing too but remain below the peak levels reached during the Bakken oil-by-rail boom, which lasted from about 2012 to early 2016.
After the recent oil train derailment in Iowa, Kevin Birn of IHS Markit, an energy analytics and consulting company, stated the obvious:
"The accident is a manifestation of increased crude-by-rail from Western Canada due to pipeline constraints."
Despite the evidence showing that long, heavy trains filled with oil derail more often, very little has been done to improve the safety of moving oil by rail since Lac-Mégantic. As oil-by-rail continues on its latest uptick, another catastrophe like the one that claimed 47 lives in a small Quebec town is likely inevitable.
Reason #3: The Rail Barons Are in Charge
In December 2016, a group came together in Ottawa, Canada's capital, to discuss Lac-Mégantic and what the industry and regulators have learned since the devastating events of July 2013.
Brian Stevens, National Rail Director for Unifor, Canada's largest private sector union, was one of the speakers. Stevens previously spent 16 years as an air-brake mechanic working on trains.
Stevens summed up the problem: "Nothing has changed. The railway barons are still there. And stronger than ever."
And while this statement was made by a Canadian at a conference in Canada about an accident in Canada, the rail barons are on both sides of the Canadian-American border.
His statement even came before the Trump administration began its efforts to remove safety measures enacted during the Obama adminstration. Since then, the rail barons successfully had the regulations for modern ECP brakes repealed. Trump appointed the former head of rail company Conrail as the new top rail regulator at the Federal Railroad Administration. If you are a rail baron, this was all great news.
In the first Congressional hearing about rail safety in the Trump era, Rep. Bill Shuster got right to the point about the goal of any changes to regulations when he said that government should "allow the railroad industry to keep more of their profits."
This statement reveals why so little has been accomplished to improve oil-by-rail safety. Moving oil-by-rail in a safe manner may be possible given the raft of potential safety measures outlined here, but it is highly unlikely that the venture would still be profitable for rail companies. As a result, the rail industry is favoring the status quo and federal regulators in the U.S. and Canada have done little to nothing to change that.
Five years after the derailment in Lac-Mégantic, all of the major risks related to moving oil by rail still exist, but the large portion of downtown Lac-Mégantic destroyed that day in 2013 does not. Its continued absence stands as a stark reminder of the very real dangers of the current oil-by-rail industry.
Lac-Mégantic before and after the oil train explosion in July 2013. Claude Grenier, Studio Numéra, Lac-Mégantic
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
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waterlust.com / @abamabam
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Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Justin Mikulka
On Jan. 29, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee rejected a permit required for Tesoro-Savage to build the Vancouver Energy oil-by-rail facility, the largest such project in the nation, at the Port of Vancouver, along the Washington-Oregon border. The governor explained the basis of his decision, which followed a several year long process, in a letter to the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council:
"When weighing all of the factors considered against the need for and potential benefits of the facility at this location, I believe the record reflects substantial evidence that the project does not meet the broad public interest standard necessary for the Council to recommend site certification."Vancouver Energy, a joint venture of Tesoro and Savage, has not yet commented on the decision but has 30 days to file an appeal. Local environmental groups, however, were quick to applaud the news.
"This project was absurdly dangerous and destructive, and Governor Inslee saw these risks clearly," said Dan Serres, conservation director of Columbia Riverkeeper. "The threat of an earthquake or accident creating an oil spill in the Columbia River poses far too great a risk to the Columbia, its salmon and its people."
Serres and the governor both outlined why many oil-by-rail projects have been fiercely opposed by local communities: The projects offer huge risks and very little reward for the communities where they are located. The Vancouver Energy terminal would have resulted in oil train traffic hauling more than 131 million barrels of oil along the Columbia Gorge and transferred to ships bound for West Coast refineries.
The governor's decision came a week after three rail employees involved in the deadly Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, oil-by-rail disaster were acquitted, a situation which makes the potential risks of moving explosive oil through communities readily apparent.
Lac-Mégantic before and after the oil train explosion.Claude Grenier / Studio Numéra / Lac-Mégantic
In Washington they don't need to look as far as Lac-Mégantic to see the risks of moving oil-by-rail.
In 2016 a train carrying Bakken oil through the Columbia River Gorge derailed and caught fire in Mosier, Oregon. By all accounts Mosier was very lucky that day and avoided a much larger disaster. The proposed Tesoro-Savage facility would have meant many more oil trains moving through the Columbia River Gorge, which straddles Washington and Oregon.
Listening to the Will of the People
One could argue that with this decision, Gov. Inslee is simply doing his job by representing the people he serves. While the final decision about this project's future was the governor's to make, in November 2017 the voters of Vancouver were given an opportunity to voice their opinion about this project at the ballot box—and the vote wasn't even close.
Last year two candidates—one for the oil train project and one against—ran for the open seat on the Port of Vancouver board of commissioners, which would be charged with decisions related to the proposed Tesoro-Savage facility. Don Orange, who opposed the oil-by-rail project, won that election with almost 65 percent of the vote.
Orange was elected despite his opponent receiving more than $600,000 in campaign funding, with 90 percent of it coming from the companies behind the oil-by-rail facility and its backers. That's a lot of money pouring into a campaign for an elected position that pays less than $20,000 a year.
Earlier this month Commissioner Orange and the other two port commissioners voted to not renew the company's lease if the project did not have all required permits and licenses by March 31.
Big Victory Caps a String of Success for Oil-by-Rail Activists
By itself, the rejection of the Port of Vancouver oil-by-rail facility would represent a major victory for activists opposing oil and rail projects, as it would have been the largest facility of its kind in the nation. However, the outcome caps a string of wins for West Coast communities fighting against new oil-by-rail facilities in their midst.
That was preceded by the Washington Supreme Court voting unanimously to deny an oil-by-rail project in Grays Harbor because that project lacked a comprehensive environmental review and did not consider the Ocean Resources Management Act.
Also in 2017, a proposed Phillips 66 oil-by-rail project in California was voted down by the San Luis Obispo County planning commission.
In 2016 the city council in Benicia, California, voted unanimously to reject Valero's proposed oil-by-rail project. The Benicia project also resulted in another victory for local communities when the Surface Transportation Board ruled that local communities had the right to weigh in on oil-by-rail projects proposed in their area.
The Benicia decision was a situation that Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor acknowledged had national implications. "The community of Benicia, in the crosshairs of history, made one of those decisions that will make a difference for the country. They stood up and said the safety of our communities matters," he said.
That decision gave communities the right to say whether or not they wanted to absorb a large part of the risks of oil-by-rail projects when it was oil and rail companies reaping the rewards.
The Fight Continues
In June of this year I wrote about how the oil industry had long-term plans to use rail to move oil to West Coast refineries. At the time, I mentioned that Kevin Sheys, an industry lawyer speaking to the 2016 Energy by Rail conference, made a presentation that included a slide stating that that the biggest threat facing the industry was "Local Regulation of Crude Oil/Ethanol Unit Train Unloading Projects."
Unhappy with local communities having some say in such matters, Sheys said, "I think that in the next four years, there is an issue that the administration will have to deal with … and the issue is local regulation of crude oil and ethanol unit train unloading projects."
As Gov. Inslee and the state of Washington have shown, Sheys prediction seems to be spot on.
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.