Crude on Derailed Train Contained High Level of Gas

Wall Street Journal | March 2, 2015 | Column by Russell Gold

Cargo would have violated new vapor-pressure cap that goes into effect in April

The crude oil aboard the train that derailed and exploded two weeks ago in West Virginia contained so much combustible gas that it would have been barred from rail transport under safety regulations set to go into effect next month.

Tests performed on the oil before the train left North Dakota showed it contained a high level of volatile gases, according to a lab report reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The oil’s vapor pressure, a measure of volatility, was 13.9 pounds per square inch, according to the Feb. 10 report by Intertek Group PLC.

That exceeds the limit of 13.7 psi that North Dakota is set to impose in April on oil moving by truck or rail from the Bakken Shale. Oil producers that don’t treat their crude to remove excess gas face fines and possible civil or criminal penalties, said Alison Ritter, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Industrial Commission.

The state introduced new rules on shipping oil in December, after a series of accidents in which trains carrying crude from the Bakken erupted into fireballs after derailing. As the Journal has reported, oil from shale formations contains far more combustible gas than traditional crude oil, which has a vapor pressure of about 6 psi; gasoline has a maximum psi of about 13.5.

The company that shipped the oil, Plains All American Pipeline LP, said it follows all regulations governing the shipping and testing of crude. “We believe our sampling and testing procedures and results are in compliance with applicable regulatory requirements,” said Plains spokesman Brad Leone.

New information about the West Virginia accident is likely to increase regulators’ focus on the makeup of oil being shipped by train. Federal emergency rules adopted last year imposed new safety requirements on railroad operators but not on energy companies.

“The type of product the train is transporting is also important,” said Sarah Feinberg, the acting head of the Federal Railroad Administration. “The reality is that we know this product is volatile and explosive.”

Ms. Feinberg has supported requiring the energy industry to strip out more gases from the crude oil before shipping it to make the cargo less dangerous, but such measures aren’t currently included in current or proposed federal rules.

In the wake of the West Virginia accident, members of Congress have called on the White House to expedite its review of pending safety rules developed by the U.S. Transportation Department. Timothy Butters, the acting administrator of the department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said the new regulations were being vetted as quickly as was practical, given what he called their complexity.

Some critics are calling for lower limits on the vapor pressure of oil moving by rail.

The lower the vapor pressure, the less explosive the oil and “the less chance of it blowing up—that should be the common goal here,” said Daniel McCoy, the chief executive of Albany County, N.Y., which has become a transit hub for Bakken crude heading to East Coast refineries.

The train that exploded in West Virginia included 109 tanker cars loaded with about 70,000 barrels of crude. It traveled from Western North Dakota across Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio before derailing in Mount Carbon, W. Va. Nearly two dozen tanker cars full of crude oil were engulfed in flames, some exploding into enormous fireballs that towered over the small community and burned a house to the ground.

The cause of the derailment remains under investigation. State and federal officials have said the train was traveling well under speed limits imposed last year on trains carrying crude oil. The train was made up of relatively new tanker cars built to withstand accidents better than older models.

A couple hours after the derailment, CSX and Plains All American Pipeline turned over paperwork about the crude to first responders and state and federal investigators. The testing document was included; the Journal reviewed it after making an open-records request.

A spokesman for CSX Corp. , the railroad that carried the oill at the time of the crash, said it had stepped up its inspections of the track along this route, a procedure that railroads voluntarily agreed to last year.

“Documentation provided to CSX indicated that the shipments on the train that derailed were in compliance with regulations necessary for transportation,” said Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman. “We support additional measures to enhance the safety of oil shipments, and continue to work cooperatively with regulators, oil producers, tank car manufacturers and others to achieve ever higher safety performance.”

A spokesman for BNSF Railway Co., which hauled the crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, where it was handed off to CSX, declined to comment on the derailment.

Intertek, the testing company, said it is abreast of the regulatory changes and “working closely with authorities and our clients to assure compliance.”

The U.S. Transportation Department is testing samples of crude that didn’t spill or burn and says it plans to compare its findings with the North Dakota test.

The fire burned for three and a half days. “If it is burning hard, you can’t put it out,” said Benny Filiaggi, the deputy chief of the Montgomery Fire Department, who responded to the West Virginia derailment. He said he received training from CSX about oil-train fires in October.

“We concentrated on evacuating everyone nearby before the first explosion,” Mr. Filiaggi said.

Write to Russell Gold at russell.gold@wsj.com

http://www.wsj.com/articles/crude-on-derailed-train-contained-high-level-of-gas-1425337907

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Crude on Derailed Train Contained High Level of Gas
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.