Trains carrying oil cause concern in North Jersey

The Record (via | May 4, 2014 | Scott Fallon

Trains carrying millions of gallons of highly combustible crude oil are passing through neighborhoods in Bergen County every day, even as federal officials are questioning the safety of such rail shipments after a spate of explosive derailments.

The type of oil being moved across New Jersey has a lower flash point than standard crude and is often carried in tankers that don’t comply with modern safety standards. Concern about the shipments has increased with seven accidents the past year involving the trains, including a derailment and fire that killed 47 people and incinerated 30 buildings in a town in Canada last summer and an explosion that forced the evacuation of a town in Virginia last week.

Rail and oil industry executives say they are committed to safety upgrades and have agreed to more inspections and to move the oil trains at slower speeds. They note that hundreds of thousands of oil tankers reach their destination each year without incident.

But with each accident, critics, including the departing head of the National Transportation Safety Board, have come to believe the expanding crude-by-rail practice is a danger to the communities the trains pass through. They say the combination of old tanker cars carrying a highly flammable type of oil exponentially raises the risk of explosion.

The derailments and fires have prompted federal hearings in Washington and safety inspections in other states. Federal transportation officials are working to propose new standards for the thousands of outdated tanker cars, though they have not moved to slow the tide of oil on the rails.

In New Jersey, the rapid increase in activity has gone largely unnoticed, even though the trains are moving through densely populated towns, passing within a dozen feet of schools and homes, and crossing environmentally sensitive areas like the Oradell Reservoir.

In fact, Bergen County officials said they just recently learned of the crude oil shipments down the CSX River Line through word of mouth, not from federal officials who regulate freight rail or from CSX, which operates the biggest rail network east of the Mississippi River.

“I guess they can ship anything down without telling anyone,” said Bergen County Police Lt. Matthew Tiedemann, the county’s Office of Emergency Management coordinator. “That puts us in a position where we have to knock on some wood and hope for the best.”

In the past 18 months, New Jersey has quietly become a major transportation corridor for the domestic oil boom. The crude originates in North Dakota’s Bakken region, where an enormous oil reserve was discovered six years ago. Because there are few pipelines in that region, the oil is shipped to the lucrative Northeast market by rail through Chicago, then on to Albany and finally south through New Jersey to refineries.

The oil trains enter Bergen County in Northvale on the CSX River Line and travel past thousands of homes and businesses in 10 other Bergen towns, Norwood, Harrington Park, Closter, Haworth, Dumont, Bergenfield, Teaneck, Bogota, Ridgefield Park and Ridgefield. After stopping in a North Bergen rail yard, the trains then pass through the central part of the state, crossing the Delaware River near Trenton on their way to a refinery in Philadelphia.

Besides the trains, millions of gallons of Bakken crude are also moved by barges and tankers down the Hudson River. A group of former energy executives recently proposed building a pipeline through the region.

Amid increasing concern about the rail shipments, major rail companies in February agreed to have more track inspections and to reduce the maximum speed of oil trains to 40 mph when they’re within 10 miles of a major city — a practice that would cover all of the River Line through Bergen County.

Still, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, who will soon leave the post, said the federal Department of Transportation is not moving fast enough to insist the companies use safer railcars.

“We don’t need a higher body count before they move forward,” she said after hearings in Washington last month.

A key component

Oil executives say rail transport is essential to moving crude from a remote part of the country to one of its biggest markets. The crude in Bakken has made the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil and has helped revitalize refineries. While many rail executives have said safety improvements should be made — like better brakes and wheel maintenance — they have stopped short of endorsing immediate, wholesale changes.

“CSX is resolved to put into place equipment, standards, regulations, practices, and training to ensure that all commodities handled by railroads are handled in the safest manner possible,” said Bob Sullivan, a spokesman for the Florida-based company.

But the train transport remains shrouded in secrecy. Railroads are regulated almost exclusively by the federal government and are not required to provide information on what they haul to state or local officials.

Sullivan would not divulge how many trains or how much crude oil is shipped by CSX through New Jersey, calling it “commercial information that is not discussed publicly.” He would only say 14 oil trains are in transit every week on CSX’s 21,000 miles of rail.

But executives at Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ refinery said the plant processes about 6.9 million gallons of crude a day brought in over the CSX River Line through Bergen County. That would suggest that an average of two oil trains pass through Bergen County each day, since one train can carry up to 120 tanker cars each filled with almost 30,000 gallons of oil. Residents in North Jersey, meanwhile, report seeing up to seven oil trains in one day.

All of that oil passes a few hundred feet from Ron and Susan Schaumburg’s Teaneck home. The couple, who once led an effort to stop other CSX trains from idling for days in town, noticed a recent increase in the black tanker cars but had no idea they held oil.

“They won’t tell you what’s on the cars,” Ron Schaumburg said. “I learned that a long time ago. Susan joked that they’re probably just hauling milk. But we were always pretty sure it was some hazardous material. The fact that it’s oil is very concerning.”

Aside from traveling through some of Bergen County’s biggest towns, the trains also run through the county’s main source of drinking water, the Hackensack River Watershed. The oil trains pass near Lake DeForest in Rockland County, go over the Hackensack River a few miles south and then cross a small bridge over the upper reaches of the Oradell Reservoir, where an average of 113 million gallons of water is pumped each day to 750,000 people.

Executives with United Water, which operates the reservoir, were unaware that oil cars were passing over the reservoir until they were recently informed by a reporter.

“When you look at what’s being shipped and the age of the cars, it gives you pause over how this oil is transported,” said Rich Henning, a United Water spokesman.

Concerned about the increasing rail shipments of crude, New York officials recently conducted two safety inspection blitzes at rail yards in Albany and Buffalo of trains that eventually make their way down to New Jersey.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also ordered five state agencies to determine how to prevent and respond to rail accidents involving crude oil. And just hours before the fiery derailment in Lynchburg, Va., Cuomo sent a letter to the White House urging immediate federal action to protect New York from similar crude oil transportation disasters.

But little has been done in New Jersey. The state Department of Environmental Protection, which responds to hazardous spills, has had discussions with local emergency managers over the oil trains but has not taken any action other than monitoring the air at rail yards.

“We’re aware there is an increase in the number of crude oil trains coming down south, but we don’t have any authority or oversight over freight rail,” said Larry Ragonese, an agency spokesman. “There isn’t even a requirement that the freight companies let us know what’s coming through New Jersey.”

Since 2007, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security has had access to CSX’s SecureNOW system, which tracks every train movement in the state and records every commodity carried by their trains. But Tiedemann, of Bergen’s emergency management team, doesn’t have access to it. A spokesman for Homeland Security did not return a phone call seeking comment. 

State is confident

New Jersey officials say they believe current emergency procedures can handle an accident.

“The bottom line is we already have a robust hazardous material and response program,” said Mary Goepfert, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management.

But some local emergency responders aren’t as confident. Ridgefield Park Mayor George Fosdick said his department has long had plans in place to respond to a derailment. But after seeing what happened in Canada last summer, Fosdick said there is no plan that could deal with a derailment involving Bakken crude in his town.

“It’s like everything. It takes a disaster for people to start paying attention,” said Fosdick, a volunteer firefighter for 50 years. “We know we have a ton of Bakken crude coming through town. And right now, other than praying, there’s a limited amount we can do.”

Freight trains have long carried hazardous materials, including toxic chemicals like chlorine and highly flammable liquids like ethanol, through New Jersey. Incidents have been rare. Indeed, industry groups say 99 percent of freight trains in the nation make it to their destination without even a small problem.

But more oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents last year — 1.15 million gallons — than in the previous 38 years combined, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

And in just the past year, trains carrying Bakken crude have been involved in a spate of serious accidents.

The most devastating rail incident involving Bakken crude happened last summer near the Maine border, when a series of events allowed an unattended train carrying 72 tanker cars full of oil to derail in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. The crude ignited and exploded, killing 47 people and destroying most of the downtown.

In their investigation, Canadian authorities found that the crude had a low flash point that allowed it to ignite much faster once the tanker cars were breached.

A few months later, trains carrying Bakken were involved in accidents in North Dakota and Alabama, causing fiery explosions but no major injuries.

By then, federal officials had come to realize this particular crude has an unusual quality: The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a general alert in December that Bakken crude “may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.”

There have been some close calls, as well. In December, a CSX train carrying 90 tanker cars of Bakken crude on the River Line struck a tractor trailer in Rockland County. It did not derail or spill any oil, but the collision at a West Nyack crossing spurred New York officials to call for stricter safety standards. A month later, six oil tankers on a CSX line derailed on a bridge over the Schuylkill in Philadelphia, dangling precipitously over the edge and near the University of Pennsylvania, three hospitals and a highway. In February, a CSX train returning from Philadelphia with empty oil tank cars derailed on the River Line in upstate New York. No one was injured.

Last week, a CSX train carrying the crude derailed in downtown Lynchburg. No one was injured, but the resulting fire could be seen miles away. Thousands of gallons of Bakken crude spilled into the James River after three tankers fell into the waterway.

What worries critics most about the shipments is that much of the Bakken crude is carried on tank cars that the NTSB considers “inadequate to withstand the forces of a derailment.”

About 92,000 of these tank cars, known as DOT-111s, are used to move flammable liquids, like crude. But only 14,000 are built to the latest industry safety standards, according to the Association of American Railroads.

The NTSB has been calling for the replacement or retrofitting of the tank cars since 1991 but the federal DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which regulates tanker cars, has only taken on the issue in recent years. It is expected to propose new standards before the end of this year.

Tanker cars are owned by leasing companies or oil distribution companies, not the railways. Sullivan said CSX supports strengthened tank car standards, but other companies have taken more significant action. Burlington Northern Santa Fe announced in February that it would buy 5,000 new tank cars to improve safety. That same month, Canadian Pacific Railway Chief Executive Hunter Harrison called for all of the old tankers to be retired immediately.

“Stop them tomorrow. Don’t wait for a study, we know the facts,” Harrison told a Chamber of Commerce audience in Calgary. “You know what it comes down to, and I hate to say this, it’s the almighty dollar. Who’s going to pay for this?”

At a cost of $15,000 a tanker car, a complete retrofit of the entire DOT-111 fleet would require $1.1 billion, according to industry estimates. The new cars have a thicker, more puncture resistant shell, extra protective head shields at both ends of the tank and additional protection for the top fittings.

Better tanker cars will help, but some experts believe the likelihood of an accident will increase because the amount of crude transported by rail is so much greater now, rising 4,100 percent the last five years.

“Each individual car will be safer, and that’s a good thing,” said Nancy Kinner, an oil spill expert at the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center. “But when you add thousands of more cars onto the rails, you’re going to have more accidents no matter how much you improve the resilience of those cars.”

CSX expects crude shipments to increase on the River Line. The company is spending $26 million to build 18 miles of new track parallel to the River Line in upstate New York to create more capacity. In its marketing material to oil distributors, CSX says it is capable of sending five trains a day into the Philadelphia market via the River Line. That would mean 17 million gallons could pass through North Jersey daily.

“We have the supply in this country, but we have constraints on getting the supply to the market,” said Karen Moreau, executive director of New York State Petroleum Council. “Rail is an important part of this. This is how we get most of our commodities.”

But the prospect of more oil rolling through North Jersey just heightens the concerns of residents like Dean Weiss, who first noticed the glut of oil trains running past his Bergenfield home about six months ago.

“None of the towns are remotely equipped to handle this,” he said. “If ever there was a derailment, you would have one car explode, then the next, then the next. It would be a disaster right here in my town.”

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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.