Hydrogen Sulfide Train Car Bombs

Albany Weblog | July 22, 2014 | Post by Daniel Van Riper

An expose: The oil trains are even more dangerous than we thought but they don’t have to be dangerous at all, Global is planning to try to hide the trains, and a vigil for the victims of Lac Magantic

Vigil For The Victims Of Lac Magantic On South Pearl Street In Albany With Train Oil Car Bombs Slowly Passing Behind

The oil trains passing through Albany don’t have to be explosive, they don’t have to be bombs that will eventually blow up again, and they don’t have to be packed with poisonous gas. But the oil corporations that are loading the trains with Bakken crude oil are turning the rail cars into bombs. Why? In the name of the Holy Bottom Line, the psychopathic America-haters who run the oil extraction corporations in North Dakota are refusing to make their product safe before running the oil car bombs past our homes.

It’s been known since the beginning of modern oil extraction back in the 1800s that one does not transport crude oil in a car or through a pipeline without first removing the light gases from the crude, explosive gases such as propane, ethane and butane. But that’s only part of the story. These train cars running through downtown Albany on their way to the Port are heavily loaded with a substance known as hydrogen sulfide, which is not only explosive but is also extremely toxic and extremely corrosive. So far the high concentration of hydrogen sulfide has been kept secret.

It appears that the frackers who have been extracting this oil from North Dakota have misidentified the nature of their product. So that they don’t have to cut their profits a bit to make their product safe enough to travel, they’ve told the American people that the oil in these tank cars is something that it is not, that it is a cleaner, less dangerous kind of oil. Even worse, the oil producers are not taking the necessary steps to make their oil safe enough to transport. In short, they have been lying to us.

This past July 6 was the first anniversary of the rail explosion that destroyed the downtown of Lac Magantic, a lakeside town in Quebec which is a mere 22 miles from the US border. At 1:15 in the morning, when most everyone was asleep, an unattended 74 car train of oil cars somehow started rolling downhill by itself at top speed and derailed. The cars full of unrefined crude crumpled up against each other, and it is thought that sparks from the colliding metal tankers ignited the escaping gases resulting in what surviving eyewitnesses described as “ a river of fire” and “a tsunami of fire.”

47 people died in that fireball, many caught sleeping in their own beds. Or rather, the partial remains of 42 people have been found and their identities confirmed. Several of these individuals were so shredded that the remaining pieces of their bodies were identified only by painstaking genetic analysis, which took several months. The other five victims were so thoroughly obliterated by the fireball that no trace of their bodies have ever been found. They were simply vaporized.

The strangest thing about the blast was that there were hardly any wounded. Only a few victims suffered from burns or were partially asphyxiated by the deadly smoke that billowed from the burning tank cars. Those who came in contact with the explosion and survived were few. According to The Toronto Star:

Back at the hospital, reinforcements from neighbouring medical centres were standing by, ready to rush to Lac-Mégantic to treat what they expected would be dozens of injured residents. Hospital authorities were also ready to evacuate all their patients in case the wind shifted and blew the black, toxic smoke in their direction. But then nothing happened. The wind blew the smoke in the opposite direction and no patients with any of the serious burns and other injuries that might have been expected arrived at the emergency room. ...One Red Cross volunteer who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media put it bluntly: “You have to understand: there are no wounded. They’re all dead.”

The unrefined oil that destroyed Lac Magantic came from the Bakken Field of North Dakota, the southern tip of the great underground oil deposit that stretches far north into Canada. Despite being the same geological formation, the oil from North Dakota is much different from the oil found in Canada. That Canadian oil is known as “Tar Sands,” a thick glop that requires a great deal of energy to be transformed into a product that can be used. That Canadian tar sands oil has a different set of transport problems and threats to communities, another story altogether.

Supposedly the North Dakota oil is of much higher quality, light sweet crude as it is called. However, it is has been known since at least 2010 that this oil is not at all “sweet,” it is actually sour crude, which means it contains large amounts of hydrogen sulfide (H2S.) It appears that the persons who have been fracking the oil out of the ground in North Dakota have, shall we say, intentionally misidentified the product which they are extracting.

As it turns out, this North Dakota crude packed into these train cars contains a massively much greater quantity of hydrogen sulfide than is usually found in oil deposits. H2S is considered a broad spectrum poison, which means it can destroy your body in a variety of ways, as such it is comparable to hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide. H2S was used as a chemical weapon by the British during the First World War. A few years ago hydrogen sulfide was used in a wave of suicides in Japan.

Black smoke billowed from the Lac Magantic explosion. This smoke was loaded with hydrogen sulfide, which itself is volatile and appears to have contributed to the intensity of the explosion. It was an amazing bit of luck that because of the direction of the wind the smoke loaded with H2S did not asphyxiate more people, a bit of luck that probably won’t happen at the next oil train explosion.

But the big ongoing issue with hydrogen sulfide is that it is extremely corrosive. It’s that stuff that smells like rotten eggs when you open a sewer line, and according to the federal Environmental Protective Agency (EPA) causes billions of dollars of damage to wastewater systems every year. But even the worst concentrations of hydrogen sulfide in sewer lines does not approach the concentrations that are found in these sealed tank cars.

Hydrogen sulfide easily reacts and becomes sulfuric acid (H2SO4,) a substance that anybody who has worked with can tell you is very nasty stuff that burns through almost anything. Down in the sewers there’s plenty of bacteria which happily eat hydrogen sulfide and excrete sulphuric acid, this is the principal cause of corrosion of sewer lines. But hydrogen sulfide can also turn into sulfuric acid by simply coming into contact with most metals, including iron, copper and silver. Tank cars and pipelines, of course, are made of metal.

Last summer I spoke to a worker on one of the oil transport tankers at the Port of Albany. He was one of a crew of two on this enormous tank barge, his job was to constantly check the equipment on board for corrosion caused by the Bakken crude that they were transporting down the Hudson River. He told us the oil corroded metal pipes and electronic equipment because the oil was loaded with grains of sand, which somehow or other remained suspended in the fluid after fracking, a process that uses enormous amounts of sand to extract the oil.

But he was wrong. The corrosion of the equipment on that tank barge that he monitored is caused by the enormous amounts of hydrogen sulfide reacting with the metal parts of the equipment. This hard working fellow who believed in what he was doing had apparently not been properly informed by his employers of the dangers of the materials with which he was working. I wonder if he even knew about the risk of explosion.

As much as I hate to use these words, because they tend to backfire on the speaker, it sure looks like the people who extract the North Dakota oil are Liars, and they have been engaging in a Conspiracy to deceive the public and mislead regulators. The frackers routinely refer to their product as light sweet crude at every opportunity. This Conspiracy even extends to editing this falsehood into Wikipedia, which currently declares that Bakken Crude contains little or no H2S.

But as often happens with lies, reality eventually catches up. Way back in 2010, the oil pipeline carrier corporation Enbridge, not exactly an advocate for public safety, discovered that the North Dakota oil that they were contracted to carry was destroying their pipelines. From the Toronto Globe And Mail:

Bigger alarms went off in May [2010] when pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. discovered dangerous hydrogen sulfide levels in Bakken crude – 24 times the legal limit. That was enough to prompt the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to grant emergency powers to Enbridge to block crude that carried excessive amounts of the potentially lethal and explosive sulfide vapours from entering its pipeline.

Twenty four times the legal limit and Enbridge refused to handle it? This means that the US government has known for at least four years that this oil is extremely dangerous but has not done a damn thing to regulate it’s transport, at least not until people started hollering. Nor have have the feds so much as admitted that millions of people across this country are at deadly risk of incineration and asphyxiation every single day. I guess they didn’t want to alarm anybody.

That explains why more pipelines have not been built to carry the North Dakota crude. Only 17 percent of that very sour oil travels by pipeline, some is transported by truck but most by rail. There doesn’t seem to be much of an effort to build new pipelines to service North Dakota, but as we know all too well here in Albany there has been every effort to expand rail transport of the oil.

If pipeline carrier Enbridge is rejecting certain batches of crude because those batches contain too much hydrogen sulfide, then obviously those batches are not being put back into the ground. The frackers needed to find an alternate way to transport that rejected oil, and the much maligned rail system operators of the US and Canada were more than happy to accommodate this sudden massive demand for their services. That appears to be the real reason why some 80 percent of the North Dakota crude is moved by rail.

Consider that for a moment. The dirtiest most toxic and most explosive crude oil that has been rejected by pipeline carriers because it is too unsafe for them to handle is being routed through the Port of Albany. Once again our beleaguered City has been handed the shit end of the stick by the corporate establishment, and our government authorities and the corporate media have been pretending to be ignorant of the crisis that has been quietly unfolding on our doorstep.

It’s all very reassuring to hear our federal representatives Senator Charles Schumer and Congressman Paul Tonko repeatedly call for a better constructed rail tank car to become mandatory for oil transport. And it is certainly comforting that our corporate cheerleader governor Andrew Cuomo is telling us that he is ordering reviews and inspections and whatever in response to public rage. But as much as that sounds like our elected officials are on top of the matter and actively looking for a solution to the problem, none of it really means a damn thing because none of it deals with the root cause.

I have yet to hear one single politician so much as point out that the fossil fuel corporations have deliberately chosen to threaten our lives by exposing us to a dangerous, deadly product that doesn’t have to be dangerous and deadly. Our political leaders, this current crop of aging Baby Boomers, are once again proving that the entire lot of them are incapable of challenging the degradations of the corporate establishment. Calling for better-built tank cars is like demanding bandaids for a cancerous tumor.

(At least our local Democrats are acknowledging that there is a serious problem. I do not believe one single Republican anywhere has so much as addressed the issue, let alone offered any solutions.)

And as usual the corporate media, the voice of the corporations, has done everything it can to marginalize this crisis. They have not at all described the hydrogen sulfide corrosion problem, past experience tells us they will not do so until it is repeatedly thrown in their faces by the public. Then when everybody already knows about the real problem we will hear the corporate media give mention.

When the problem with the explosive tank cars first became notorious, the local corporate media manufactured a decidedly racist slant on the story. The issue was, they heavily implied, nothing more than the shrill complaints of a bunch of lazy black people in the South End of Albany living in subsidized housing next to the railroad tracks. The Hearst-owned Times Union in particular spun the exploding tank car story as not worth much consideration because, as any white suburbanite will tell you, those of us who live here in the South End are a bunch of dirty animals whose lives don’t matter.

But the Times Union and the rest of local corporate media dropped that characteristic anti-Albany spin in a hurry when white suburbanites started angrily voicing their fears of train explosions. Suddenly the story became serious because now the right kind of people were complaining. But we still haven’t seen any acknowledgment by them of the corporate malfeasance that has created this unnecessary crisis, nor so much as an allusion to the threat of hydrogen sulfide.

At the June Save The Pine Bush (SPB) dinner here in Albany, which featured a presentation on the tank car crisis, longtime SPB supporter David Fonseca, who once worked as a manager at oil installations in the Middle East, told the group of environmentalists about the necessity of of what he called “preliminary refining” of freshly extracted crude oil to make it safe enough to transport. His experience came from working with high-quality Arabian light sweet crude which contains very little hydrogen sulfide, and yet it was standard procedure at those facilities to remove the volatile gasses and H2S before moving it.

Confirmation of Mr. Fonseca’s comments are coming only this month from, of all places, Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. According to a July 7 article, the frackers working the South Texas oil field spent a few bucks of their enormous profits to build what the WSJ called “the necessary equipment” to make the sulfurous crude safe enough to handle. But the North Dakota operators can’t be bothered:

When energy companies started extracting oil from shale formations in South Texas a few years ago, they invested hundreds of millions of dollars to make the volatile crude safer to handle. In North Dakota's Bakken Shale oil field, nobody installed the necessary equipment. The result is that the second-fastest growing source of crude in the U.S. is producing oil that pipelines often would reject as too dangerous to transport.
Now the decision not to build the equipment is coming back to haunt the oil industry...

An interesting detail from this WSJ article is how “the necessary equipment” to make the oil safe enough to transport involves heating the crude oil to siphon off the gaseous hydrocarbons. The equipment used to make it safe is called is called a condensate stabilizer. Very importantly, this device removes moves of the hydrogen sulfide.

By successively heating and cooling the crude inside the condensate stabilizer, the atmospheric pressure inside the chamber rises and falls, which forces the explosive vapors to exit the crude. But of course the North Dakota frackers are crying poormouth, they simply can’t afford such expensive standard equipment. So this is the reason why are lives are at risk, because these criminal scumbags are too cheap to do their job properly, and because federal regulators refuse to regulate them.

Meanwhile here in Albany, Global appears to pursuing a plan to deal with community opposition, they are trying to make the train bombs less visible. This past Sunday The Wife and I discovered that they are rebuilding an old 1880s rail line in the back of the Port that has been abandoned since the 1920s. This line used to terminate at an ironworks at what is now the north end of the Port, this is where Global has their oil transfer facility today.

We found that Global is building the new railroad tracks over the old unused bridge at the mouth of the Normanskill where it enters Island Creek, a place that is all but invisible to the general public. The bridge is serviceable although several years ago I noted that the concrete piers are rotting below the waterline. I couldn’t see if the contractors had effected any recent repairs to the piers because we saw them at high tide, but from what I could see it didn’t look like any patching had been done.

This new rail spur would allow Global to run the explosive trains into the Port almost unseen since almost no one goes to Island Creek behind the Port. Building rail lines is an extremely expensive proposition, this is not something Global would do unless they felt compelled to do so. Unfortunately even though the train bombs would become less noticeable they would still be just as dangerous to the people of the South End of Albany and beyond.

On the first anniversary of the destruction of Lac Magantic on July 6th, a vigil was held at the basketball court down on South Pearl Street across from Mount Hope Drive. I counted well over 200 people in attendance, including a good sized gang of elected officials. In addition all the local corporate media was in attendance, including some national media outfits such as Time dot com.

Behind the ball court is a chain link fence which separates the two rows of Ezra Prentice Homes from the railroad tracks. About a third of the way through the vigil, as if choreographed and on cue, a line of the ominous black oil cars made their appearance, rumbling and making nasty crashing sounds. Several of the more nervous people present worried that the cars were about to explode right then and there.

It was an interesting crowd, about one third composed of the mostly black local residents of Ezra Prentice, and the rest were, as The Wife observed, “almost every activist in Albany.” That was an exaggeration, but not a big one. Most of these activists and concerned visitors, the majority of whom were white, came from around the City of Albany but some came from the nearby suburbs.

It’s not everyday that such large numbers of white middle class people show up in this neighborhood for any reason. But here they were to show solidarity with folks with whom they normally would never come in contact. It was an impressive show of community unity, the sort of which has as far as I know has never been seen in this South Pearl Street neighborhood.

One can’t escape calling this gathering a bunch of NIMBYs, that is, Not In My Back Yard. For the residents of Ezra Prentice this was literally true, the crashing trains rumble in their back yards all day long every single day and night and could vaporize their homes at any time. I asked a lady named Verna if she minded the constant noise and she flat out said, “No, you never get used to it.” But she added that she very much liked living there and she felt close to her neighbors.

As for the white visitors to this nearby foreign land, they too were very much NIMBYs. While much of the focus has been on the Port of Albany, the train cars could conceivably explode anywhere there are train tracks, and particularly where the tracks are located on a downhill run. The blast zone, wherever it might occur, could easily destroy everything and everybody within a half mile radius.

First responders would have no way to extinguish the resulting fireball, they could only contain the fire and wait for it to burn out. In addition the toxic smoke full of H2S, would sweep over populated areas in downtown Albany no matter which direction it blows. A blast, we are told by the authorities, would prompt a five mile evacuation. If the blast occurs at the Port, then Albany Medical Center, the designated receiver of casualties, would itself have to be evacuated.

But all this has become common knowledge. The program was conceived by a citywide group that has recently organized in response to the crisis, People of Albany United for Safe Energy (PAUSE,) in conjunction with the South End advocacy organization AVillage and the nearby newly constructed St. John’s Church of God in Christ. Pastor McKinnley Johnson delivered the homily, his sermon was the rousing high point of the vigil.

Pastor Johnson, who informed us that he is 77 years old, made it clear that if we wanted to stop the explosive trains it was entirely up to us. “There’s gonna be a change, but we ain’t gonna wait for other folks to change it. They say we don’t have a legal right to object,” he said, referring to Global, “but we have a moral right.” The man’s delivery was so inspiring that for a moment I was almost ready to start attending his church. Seriously... but I got over it.

Pastor Johnson, by the way, is the son of the legendary Reverend Jack Johnson, who led black families from Mississippi to Albany in the first half of the 20th Century. There’s a street off Green Street down in the Pastures neighborhood that bears the Reverend’s name.

Among the politicians in attendance was Albany County executive Dan McCoy, who grew up on Second Avenue in the South End and has shown deep interest in the present condition of his old neighborhood. Back in March he issued an executive order which declared a moratorium on expansion of Global’s activities in the Port of Albany. While many were surprised that he would take such a political risk, it was just as surprising to find out that the county executive had the authority to do such a thing.

Naturally the Global Corporation was enraged by this audacious politically risky action by a mere local politician. Mr. McCoy’s moratorium was noted by national publications and praised by environmental groups, but has received a snotty negative slant in the Times Union and other local corporate media because he has repeatedly demanded that safety breaches and oil spills by Global be promptly reported. Defying the fossil fuel cartels like that may have earned him some serious retaliation from the corporate establishment, we will have to watch and see if he can handle it.

When Congressman Paul Tonko repeated his call for “safer” oil tank cars and more government oversight of safety, I noted a touch of unease in the crowd. Anyone who is familiar with Mr. Tonko, and that would include most of those who were present, know that he is a passionate and committed defender of his constituent’s rights and livelihoods. Yet this call did not satisfy many in the crowd who are demanding nothing less than the complete cessation of explosive oil transport through the City of Albany.

Newly elected 2nd Ward Common Council member Vivian Kornegay has emerged as a leader and spokesperson for her constituents in this matter. A community activist before she took office in January, she quite naturally echoed Pastor Johnson’s call for those of us in the community to take matters into our own hands. “Don’t let these people deter you,” she said. “We’re going to do whatever we have to do.”

Before Pastor Johnson delivered his homily we had a reading of the names of the 47 dead in the Lac Magantic attack. Participants in the vigil, the speakers and some audience members, each held up a photo of one of the dead victims and spoke their names into the mic. Afterwards each photo was hung in a sad row along the basketball court fence.

Before the bomb train attack probably not one single person living in the South End of Albany had ever so much as heard of Lac Magantic, such is the effect of senseless tragedy on our lives. But the deadly explosion demonstrated to the entire world that fossil fuel corporations that lack effective public oversight are a terrible threat to all of us, no matter where we live. National borders do not protect us from corporate malfeasance, our only defense against this common enemy is for decent people to stand united and demand that the frackers of North Dakota stop loading these trains with unnecessarily dangerous substances.

As for the suits who have decided to send bombs across the landscape and through our communities, why haven’t these inhuman monsters been brought to justice? We hear that the rail workers in charge of the trains in Lac Magantic on that fateful day were held accountable, but does the bulk of responsibility lie with the fellows who do the actual work? Is pursuit of profit a sufficient excuse for committing mass murder?

Several times throughout the vigil we were treated to songs performed by singer and songwriter Terry Roben. After the introduction (by Willie White of AVillage) Ms. Roben sang a song that she had co-written that had the following refrain:

Bomb trains, bomb trains
How many lives will be sacrificed
For big oil’s corporate gain?

If a Lac Magantic type explosion occurs inside the United States, and such a disaster could very well happen in or near Albany where rail lines converge and intersect, then it would be a terrorist attack. Under the provisions of the so-called “Patriot” Act, an act of terrorism requires premeditation and a political purpose, in this case the ideology of corporate absolutism. If these elite oil corporation owners and executives are incapable of practicing personal responsibility, then one way or another these terrorists need to receive the harshest possible justice, the punishment appropriate for mass murderers.

The vigil ended with laying flowers along the fence beneath the photos of the victims. What more could be said for these human beings that none of us had ever known, and now can never know. Death is the great equalizer, the final argument for universal equality, but that doesn’t mean we should stay quiet and let these oil train bombs blow us all to Hell.

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commented 2014-07-26 11:40:20 -0400 · Flag
For a list of ND officials who have the power to stop this nonsense, and other info, go to: https://www.facebook.com/BombTrainBuckStopsWithNorthDakota
@PAUSEnergy tweeted this page. 2014-07-25 23:11:03 -0400
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy posted about Hydrogen Sulfide Train Car Bombs on PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy's Facebook page 2014-07-25 23:11:03 -0400
Hydrogen Sulfide Train Car Bombs
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE works to promote safe, sustainable energy and environmental justice.  We aim to engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry's assault on the people of Albany and our environment.