Tar Sands & Train WrecksPosted: March 8, 2015
One of my family’s favorite movies is Unstoppable with Dezel Washington. That movie tracks somewhat closely a real life incident that it is based on the CSX 8888, also known as the Crazy 8s incident. In both the movie and the incident there are tanker cars carrying molten phenol and an un-manned “runaway” train. The reasons this happened are the same in both versions – a misaligned switch, an engineer leaving the cab to address it and thinking that applying the independent air brake would be adequate.
The movie is a gripping, seat of your pants drama about how ill prepared the powers that be are to rapidly respond to the inevitable shouldn’ts that still happen. It turns out that when it comes to railroad issues, the powers that be are the railroads themselves (the fox guarding the chicken coop – the serious danger policed by the source of that danger).
I wanted to watch the Unstoppable movie again after I recently listened to the Feb 25, 2015 episode of NPR Fresh Air titled “A Hard Look At The Risks Of Transporting Oil On Rail Tanker Cars” which was an interview of the investigative journalist, Marcus Stern. And to complicate things even more, the railroads don’t have 100% control over the “source” of the danger highlighted in this segment but control over the quality of those tanker cars is in the hands of those whose product is inside those tanker cars.
Train wrecks involving tanker cars are increasing in frequency. The most note-worthy of recent disasters in the interview occurred in Lac-Megantic Quebec Canada and involved a train that was unattended, which experienced a failure of its brakes that sent it traveling downhill at speeds reaching 60 mi/hour whereupon it encountered a curve causing it to derail, killing at least 47 people in a bar there on a Saturday night in July 2013.
It is not surprising to discover that BIG money obscures the dangerous risks now taking place. The onset of fracking in North Dakota and the existence of East Coast refineries that were not competitive processing imported oil and the convenience of rail lines and available tank cars to connect the two . . . how BIG is the payoff ? – this whole economic system is “worth tens of billions of dollars, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars” according to Stern.
So how many tanker cars are we actually talking about ? In 2008, there were 9,500 rail cars carrying crude oil. In 2014, just 6 years later, that number had jumped to 400,000. And regarding each train, they are now often 100 tanker cars extending a mile in length carrying a combined total of as much as 3 million gallons. Does this represent some change from trains only a few years ago ? Yeah, it does. In the past when hauling crude oil by rail, there might be only a couple of tankers and they’d be split up over the length of the train, reducing the risk.
Is there some characteristic that makes the North Dakota crude more dangerous. Well, yeah. It is known as “light oil” and it is a lot like gasoline. It’s actually a mixture of oil and liquid natural gases (methane, butane, propane) which are suspended in the oil. As this travels the thousands of miles from North Dakota to the East Coast, the gas part begins to separate from the liquid part leaving a gaseous blanket of propane sitting on top of the liquid oil. A breach and a spark and you have fireballs shooting hundreds of feet in the air with flaming oil shooting in all directions and such explosions can continue for several days. The emergency responders can’t do anything more than keep people away and let it burn out.
Is there something about the tanker cars being used that would make a breach more likely ? Yeah, there is. The most common model is the DOT-111 which was designed back in the 1960s for non-flammable liquids like corn syrup. This particular design is highly likely to rupture in a derailment because the shell is not thick enough. The opening at the top through which the oil is loaded into the tanker can break off in derailments. The valves don’t shut properly. At the bottom, there’s a fitting that is used to remove the oil at the refinery that also tends to break. Both ends of the tanker car need to reinforced as well. The DOT-111 is used by producers and refiners because of the economics – there are simply a lot of old DOT-111s available. Presently as many as 100,000 of them are transporting oil.
Why isn’t anyone doing something about the use of these dangerously inappropriate tanker cars ? The railroad did put into effect in Oct 2011 a mandate for tougher cars with thicker shells, though not nearly as thick as they need to be nor are there the other improvements that could increase the safety of transporting fuel on rails. And the mandate is very limited in scope – it only applies if a “new” car is built. Then, that new tanker must meet the new standards. The problem is that there are still hundreds of thousands of the old “legacy” cars still out there and they are active on the rails.
Here’s where it gets interesting . . . although the railroads are concerned, getting the tanker cars phased out and replaced is NOT under their control. The “shippers” (the refineries that take them and the producers that load them in North Dakota) are the owners of these railcars. Therefore the burden of upgrading these falls on them. And once again, “it’s the money” preventing increases in safety because it is the owners are the ones that are resisting the upgrades. How much would it cost them ? Maybe $3 billion dollars to upgrade all of the tankers.
To make this division of responsibility a bit clearer – the railroads own the track, have the right-of-ways and the locomotives. And railroads cannot legally refuse to carry any specific cargo but must allow their tracks to be open to the transportation of goods generally. Another issue of concern is that the viability of bridges that railroads also own is their responsibility. The railroad is the only party that can tell you whether the bridge is safe and there are no engineering standards for railroad bridges. The federal government does not inspect the bridges nor does it enforce any regulations related to their safety.
Yeah, what about our government ? Isn’t there something they could do ? The regulatory process includes “negotiated rulemaking”. What this means is that there are a lot of secret behind-closed-door meetings between industry and policy makers. That gives the industry a very loud voice which allows them to delay, dilute, or delete provisions that they object to. And there is gridlock in the process. Here’s an example, the Department of Transportation (regarding anything related to crude-by-rail) has not been able to get these regulations officially functional for more than a year and a half. It is no surprise that the rail-related industries put millions of dollars into lobbying in Washington to keep everything going in the direction of their best interests.
After Lac-Megantic, the Department of Transportation did issue an emergency order that trains may not be left with their engines running while sitting unattended on tracks without “specific” permission. Yet this practice continues and if the railroad receives a complaint about it, they will assert that they were “allowed” to do that. Why ? Because it says in the small print only that they have to have “a plan” (inconveniently in a drawer somewhere ?) for leaving the railroad cars unattended with their engines running.
Also mandated after Lac-Megantic, the railroads must notify state emergency officials whenever they’re going to be sending any train through a state that has more than a million gallons of oil being transported. But anything less than that and the states won’t get notified. Even when notifications are transmitted that’s no guarantee that the information will reach the local community level.
Recently President Obama vetoed the bill approving the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline modification. A Senate vote to override the veto fell short on Wed, March 4th. That certainly is okay with me. I wonder however who that pipeline actually benefits financially. What I found was that it is an indication of the power of the oil industry over this country. The very first order of business when the Republicans took over the Senate was a bill related to an oil pipeline for a foreign oil company to get their product passed through our country to the Gulf coast refineries and ports for export to other countries. Personally, I wonder if the whole Keystone issue isn’t simply a distraction from the more serious concerns that Stern highlighted in his rail tanker car report.
Officially, the reason the president vetoed the bill “is that it circumvents a long-standing administrative process for evaluating whether or not infrastructure projects like this are in the best interest of the country.”, according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. In an op-ed piece in the NY Times, Jonathan Waldman suggests that “Getting behind a law holding pipelines to higher standards seems an executive act far more courageous than a veto.” while acknowledging that “In the generation since, regulations have actually gotten laxer . . .”
In the Marcus Stern interview, one of the arguments for a pipeline – not needing to transport by rail any longer was ably refuted. He said – “… the reasons I think that producers and refiners have turned to rail is because pipelines are just so difficult to get approved. You can look at the Keystone XL Pipeline – the big debate over it – and it’s become a lightning rod for this whole discussion. But building pipelines is very contentious. And in addition to that, it takes a lot of time to do it. There’s a big upfront expense. And by the time they were putting pipelines into North Dakota, the North Dakota play might be played out.”
A lot of the Keystone Pipeline already exists as part of an infrastructure that has been built over the last 50 years. All the uproar is about “straightening” it and adding the final completing link to the Gulf Coast. So this pipeline infrastructure project just may not really make either economic or environmental sense. The Alberta Canada Premier, Jim Prentice, puts the issue bluntly this way – “under the Free Trade Agreement . . . this is a free-market product that’s moving across the North American continent one way or the other. Right now, in the absence of pipeline capacity, it will be increasingly carried by railcars. That is not the safest way. It’s not the most environmentally responsible way to carry hydrocarbons”. And it is no surprise that he believes that “… pipelines are an infinitely better choice”. Clearly, blocking further progress to finish the Keystone pipeline won’t ever prevent Canada from extracting its tar sands oil.
Jonathan Waldman asserts – “Pipelines are the safest way to move oil. They’re an order of magnitude more reliable than trains, and trains are an order of magnitude more reliable than trucks.” Still, whether it is rail or pipeline the ways of regulation in this country are discouraging – “dramatic explosion, calls for reform and powerful resistance”. Waldman makes some reassuring points about the state of technology to make pipelines safer – “smart pigs” that “can record tons of information, and capture unprecedented levels of detail” and are “more agile” – able to traverse narrow pipelines and make tight turns. He notes that leak detection software has gotten better and is now running on big databases that can monitor developing corrosion in pipelines over time.
I think back to Marcus Stern’s point about pipelines in general and it would seem to me that tanker railcars are the more “flexible” choice to move product around, whether to the East Coast or the Gulf Coast. Why not strengthen the overall safety of the rail system ? – the tanker cars, the bridges, the travel ways through the population centers around refineries – why not upgrade the whole rail system ? if the US is going to be “in the petroleum producing business” for a long time any way but perhaps continuously moving around to develop different geographical areas of our energy reserves. I’m not a fan of fracking – not at all !! – but my feelings about it aren’t going to stop it as long as it is reducing our energy dependence on politically volatile areas like the Middle East and of course if there’s a lot of money to be made and lobbying of politicians to support that effort.
Plastic is a petroleum product. Therefore, it would seem safe to assume that when we recycle plastic, we are extending the life of that already extracted natural resource. When we use it for serious construction purposes – such as restroom stall partitions – it should mean that there is less of a need to extract “new” petroleum. Or so one might hope – though markets operate on more and more stuff being generated as a rule. The Container Store believes in Conscious Capitalism and one of the ways they show that by their actions is by using Yemm & Hart’s 513 Tornado for vanity countertops in their retail establishment’s customer restrooms. Funny, somehow the color reminds me of oil flowing . . .
~ Information Resources
Unstoppable (2010 film) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unstoppable_(2010_film)
The CSX 8888 Incident – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSX_8888_incident
A Hard Look At The Risks Of Transporting Oil On Rail Tanker Cars – interview w/Marcus Stern at NPR Fresh Air – February 25, 2015 – http://www.npr.org/2015/02/25/389008046/a-hard-look-at-the-risks-of-transporting-oil-on-rail-tanker-cars
Obama Vetoes Keystone XL Bill, But Fight over Climate-Threatening Oil Pipeline Isn’t Over – posted at Democracy Now.org on Feb 25, 2015 – http://www.democracynow.org/2015/2/25/obama_vetoes_keystone_xl_bill_but
Keystone XL Pipeline Benefits U.S. And Canada, Alberta Premier Says – interview with Jim Prentice, Alberta Premier for NPR Morning Edition on Feb 04, 2015 – http://www.npr.org/2015/02/04/383724544/keystone-xl-pipeline-benefits-u-s-and-canada-alberta-premier-says
Don’t Kill Keystone XL. Regulate It. by Jonathan Waldman posted March 6, 2015 – http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/06/opinion/dont-kill-keystone-xl-regulate-it.html
What We Stand For – blog by The Container Store – http://standfor.containerstore.com/category/conscious-capitalism/
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer