States, railroads work to improve oil-train safety

Erie Times-News | January 29, 2015 | Column by Valerie Meyers

As many as 35 trains each week carry volatile crude oil through Erie County.

Rail cars placarded for crude oil transport sit on the train tracks adjacent to Union Station in Erie on Feb. 2, 2014. ANDY COLWELL/ERIE TIMES-NEWS

Trains hauling oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota enter Erie County on the CSX tracks in Springfield Township and follow the line through the David M. Roderick Wildlife Reserve, Lake City, downtown Erie and North East.

Each train carries more than one million gallons of Bakken crude, the same oil that exploded when a runaway train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013, killing 47. A derailment near Lynchburg, Va., in April 2014 spilled about 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil into the James River.

Those are nightmare scenarios for local emergency management officials, emergency responders, and people who live and do business near the CSX tracks.

"There have never been any problems here, but there are always concerns about a train derailing, especially where I'm at and especially with these trains," said Jeff Figurski, who has lived on Manchester Road in Fairview Township, just north of the tracks, for 23 years. "If one of them went off the track and exploded, I wouldn't have any chance. My whole house would be gone."

A potential oil spill into public water system intakes is another major concern for Erie County Emergency Management Director Dale Robinson.

"A million gallons of oil and water don't mix," Robinson said. "It doesn't make sense to me putting one million-plus gallons of this stuff so close to Lake Erie every day. We don't have the equipment to do oil skimming operations."

Prepared for disaster?

The Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency are among agencies working to prevent and respond to oil train accidents.

DEP has provided county emergency officials with a procedure to access information on public water supply intakes in the event of an oil train spill, DEP officials said in September. Since then, the agency has been revising its emergency operations plan to deal with oil train accidents, paying special attention to county-level responses and protecting drinking water, sensitive areas and vulnerable populations, DEP spokeswoman Amanda Witman said.

PEMA will conduct rail car awareness training for western Pennsylvania emergency management officials in February. The agency also posts railroad-provided information about oil train shipments and safety on its website at www.pema.pa.gov.

But there's been no concerted effort to assess and address oil train risks in Pennsylvania, emergency officials said. In neighboring New York, where CSX carries Bakken crude through Chautauqua County and ultimately to Albany for transport to East Coast refineries, Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January 2014 ordered a comprehensive review of the state's crude oil accident prevention and response capabilities. About half of the resulting recommendations for improvement, including the hiring of additional rail inspectors and additional rail inspections, have already been implemented.

A targeted inspection by Federal Railroad Administration and New York Department of Transportation inspectors in December found 100 defects in 704 oil tankers and 95 miles of track used by oil trains, according to Cuomo's office. Eight critical safety defects included a broken rail at CSX's Dunkirk rail yard.

"We haven't seen anything like that here," Robinson said of the initiative.

In Pennsylvania, where the FRA and state Public Utility Commission inspect track and rail equipment, there have been no targeted oil train inspections. But inspectors are aware of lines that transport oil and can focus on those areas, PUC spokeswoman Denise McCracken said. "We are making every effort to focus on these crude oil unit trains," she said.

Railroads take lead

CSX has provided the only training to help local firefighters and emergency management officials deal with an oil train accident. The railroad's Safety Train pulled into Erie in July to show firefighters how to respond to rail incidents, including accidents involving crude oil. CSX provided similar training for the Erie County Hazardous Materials Team and emergency management officials in August.

"The basic focus was on command and control, and what type of protective actions you're going to take," Robinson said. "Obviously, in my opinion, the thing is to keep oil away from the water."

The specialized training is part of a "huge" industry investment in accident prevention and response, including voluntarily lowering the speed of oil trains to 40 mph in urban areas and 50 mph elsewhere, according to the association.

"It seems to me that the majority of oil trains are slowing down," Robinson said, "and that's good risk management."

Overall, U.S. railroads carried more than 400,000 car loads of crude oil in 2013, compared to 9,500 in 2008, according to the rail association. Oil from the Bakken Shale has fueled most of the increase but may add to the potential for rail accidents. The oil may be more flammable than traditional crude, according to a 2014 alert by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Between 20 and 35 trainloads of Bakken oil come through Erie County weekly, according to CSX data provided to PEMA by federal order since May. The data has been made public by PEMA since October, by order of the state's Office of Open Records. Norfolk Southern also carries Bakken crude, but not in northwestern Pennsylvania.

VALERIE MYERS can be reached at 878-1913 or by e-mail. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNmyers.

http://www.goerie.com/states-railroads-work-to-improve-oil-train-safety#

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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.