Martinez Environmental Group: The oil, pick your poison

Martinez News-Gazette | April 20, 2014 | Op-ed by Guy Cooper

Two types of North American crude will roll through our towns. There’s the Bakken crude fractured from the shale beds of North Dakota and the oil/tar sand derivatives rent from the wilds of Alberta, Canada. The former has the potential to vaporize you and your neighborhood. The latter can slowly render your land and water and body uninhabitable.

It was Bakken crude that blew up the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, last July, exploded and poisoned the wetlands of Aliceville, Ala., in November, and just missed annihilating the town of Casselton, N.D., in December. That’s just a sample.

Lac-Mégantic was the eye opener. An improperly equipped and under-staffed 70-car tanker train heading east from the oil fields of Dakota was left parked on the main line above the town with an incorrectly set brake. In the early morning hours, the train broke free and careened down the hill, derailing in the center of town. OK. A train derailment due to human error. An unfortunate accident. One would expect a nasty oil spill and big clean up to follow.

That’s not what happened. The train exploded in concussive fireballs that flattened the downtown and instantly killed 47 people. Aerial images show an area the size of downtown Martinez reduced to rubble. Flaming oil flows poured like lava from the burning train into the nearby river and lake, cooling into an intractable underwater toxic waste deposit. It took four days just to extinguish the fires. Who knows how long it will take to clean up the mess. And, of course, 47 lives lost. The town will never be the same.

That tragic episode got people’s attention. Crude oil is not supposed to explode. It was first thought an anomaly. Maybe the train crashed into tanks of propane. That was disproved. Then there were the pools of carcinogenic benzene fire crews found themselves slogging through. Not normal.

Well, it won’t happen again. Then it did, at Aliceville and Casselton.

What was this stuff that reacted in such an uncharacteristic way? People living beside the tracks wanted to know. Emergency responders wanted to know. Local officials and the Canadian and U.S. government agencies responsible for public safety, train regulation and hazardous materials handling sought answers. Investigations and regulatory hearings commenced. About the only people not publicly showing a lot of interest, besides issues of liability, were the companies responsible for the oil production, movement and refining. Accidents happen. Normal precautions were taken. Regulations were followed. We know what we’re doing. Let’s get the PR, lawyers and lobbyist guys on this.

In response, Grant Robertson of the Toronto Globe and Mail visited the Bakken oil fields. An oil worker invited him in and produced a mason jar of fresh-out-of-the-ground Bakken crude. “Smells like gasoline, doesn’t it? Some guys around here pour it directly in their trucks.” The local joke is if most crude looks like a pint of Guinness, Bakken looks like Miller Lite.

The Chemical Engineer, an industry source, reported the results of chemical analysis by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) that largely corroborated Mr. Robertson’s hands-on experience. Flashpoint refers to the temperature at which the crude gives off enough vapor to ignite. The lower the flashpoint, the more explosive the crude. The TSB results indicated a flashpoint from Lac-Mégantic samples so low that the measuring machine could only show that it was less than -35 C. The report concluded that “It is apparent that the occurrence crude oil’s flashpoint is similar to that of unleaded gasoline.”

High vapor pressure was also found, another explosive indicator. As I understand it, vapor pressure suggests the combustible gas content of an oil. The refiner Tesoro reported in early 2013 a reading of 12 psi for Bakken. Marathon Oil reported readings of 9.7 and 8.75 between 2010 and 2013, then in 2014 (after the explosions of 2013, just saying …), reported a 5.94 result. Analysts consider that low reading an aberration, but even that number is about twice the average of most crude oils.

This is the problem. The Lac-Mégantic train cargo was assigned a packing group III classification by the largely self-regulated oil producers based on an either missed or deliberately misleading evaluation of the real volatility. Fact is, the higher the classification number, the lower the cost of transport. Class III is considered low risk. A more realistic classification I or II would have required more train staffing, beefier cars, enhanced disaster planning and other safeguards. In other words, there would have been someone else to double check on the brake and the train could not have been left unattended on the main line while the sole engineer went five miles away to a hotel for the night. A spot check of trucks transporting Bakken from the well-heads to rail-loading facilities found a similarly pervasive cargo mis-classification. The fact is, that left to their own devices, without adequate independent regulatory oversight, oil producers, transporters and refiners are invariably going to pick the lowest-cost strategy to bring their product to market. This is the current state of the surrounding industry we are entrusting with our safety. Not a good idea.

http://martinezgazette.com/archives/13876

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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.