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California Has Little Say Over Oil Train Safety

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A BNSF train with tank cars crosses a trestle in the Feather River Canyon in Northern California. (Courtesy of Jake Miille)

A BNSF train with tank cars crosses a trestle in the Feather River Canyon in Northern California. (Jake Miille/Jake Miille Photography)

Update, Friday, July 25: On Wednesday, the federal Department of Transportation proposed new regulations aimed at improving the safety of trains carrying oil.

Original story (Monday, July 21):
The number of trains carrying crude oil across California is increasing rapidly, and two official reports say the state is not ready. Regulators are preparing, with funds for disaster response and more track inspectors, but they’re limited in how much they can do to make rail transport safer.

“My view is it’s pretty undeniably bringing in extra risks to the state,” said Paul King, deputy director for rail safety at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

“These trains explode,” King said. “If that were to happen in a town, there’s no telling the damage. And of course we know what happened in little Lac-Mégantic.” That’s the town in Quebec where a train carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken formation derailed last July. The explosion killed 47 people.

‘These trains explode.’– Paul King, California Public Utilities Commission

Bakken crude is volatile. In the past year, trains transporting crude from the Bakken have also exploded in North Dakota, Virginia and Alabama.

Trains carrying Bakken crude traverse California, too, bringing the oil to refineries here. And while the CPUC regulates rail in California, the state can’t actually do much when it comes telling the railroads how they can operate. Almost all of those rules are up to the federal government.

‘Our Hands in California Are Tied’

The state can’t set speed limits on crude oil trains. It can’t tell railroads to choose less hazardous routes. It can’t tell oil companies not to bring trains carrying the volatile crude through cities. It can’t tell oil companies to ship that crude in stronger tank cars. It can’t require upgraded braking systems.

Neither can local governments, though the cities of Davis, Richmond and Berkeley have all passed resolutions expressing their opposition to the transport of crude oil by rail.

“I almost feel like our hands in California are tied, yet all these trains are going through our communities,” State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, a democrat from Santa Barbara, said at a hearing last month.

Trains carried nearly 6.3 million barrels of oil into California in 2013. That’s more than five times more than in 2012. According to the California Energy Commission, by 2016 that number could balloon to more than 100 million barrels.

That’s because there’s an oil boom in the middle part of the continent, and to get that crude from Alberta and North Dakota to California, oil companies have to use trains.

Firefighters douse blazes after in Lac-Megantic on July 6, 2013. (François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)

Firefighters douse blazes in Lac-Megantic on July 6, 2013. (François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images)

Steps Towards Safer Shipping

There are ways to make the trains safer.

Most of the tank cars used to transport crude oil, including the volatile Bakken crude, are old, and can’t protect against explosions. After the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada required that the most dangerous of the cars — the same tank cars that carry as much as 82 percent of crude oil in the U.S. — be removed from service, and that the rest be retrofitted.

The U.S. is considering stricter tank car standards. Last week, the advocacy group Earthjustice sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, urging the agency to move faster by issuing an emergency order immediately banning the use of the unsafe cars.

But California can’t require any of this. The CPUC intends to urge the DOT to “move expeditiously” to update its tank car regulations. That, and other recommendations, are laid out in a recent report on crude-by-rail safety in the state. The state wants the feds to require that there be newer braking technology on oil trains and a GPS-based system that prevents accidents on oil train routes. According to King, the CPUC will submit those recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration soon.

The railroads have already adopted some voluntary safety measures, including lower speed limits and increased track inspections. And Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, the company that is currently transporting large amounts of Bakken crude in California, is asking railcar manufacturers to submit bids to build 5,000 safer cars. (The railroads typically don’t own the cars used to ship material; the oil companies themselves either own or lease them.)

The CPUC has done one of the main things it can: hire more railroad safety inspectors. The CPUC keeps a list of the most hazardous sections of track, and according to a recent report, the most frequent cause of derailments at those sites are track problems. The new state budget adds seven positions, bringing the CPUC’s inspection staff to 38. CPUC staff checks all the tracks in California once a year and, going forward, will check the tracks on Bakken oil train routes twice a year.

A Past Disaster

California once tried to introduce stricter railroad regulations.

In July, 1991, a train derailed in Northern California at a bend in the track where it crosses the Upper Sacramento River, near the town of Dunsmuir. It spilled 19,000 gallons of a pesticide called metam sodium into the river.

“It killed everything down to the bacteria,” said Mark Stopher, who was hired by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to assess the damage to the river.

The poison killed more than a million fish, and every insect and plant in the river for 40 miles. “Nobody’s ever seen anything like that before,” he said. In video from the time, you can see fish struggling to escape the river and get into tributaries. Stopher said they all died.

“It was kind of a blow to the heart to lose the river,” said Phil Dietrich, executive director of a conservation group called River Exchange.

The Upper Sacramento had been a popular fishing destination. So when the fish were gone, the tourists, and their money, disappeared too.

But it was a pulse of poison; metam sodium doesn’t linger. A few years later, the fish were back. The tourists are back, too. It could have been worse, if what spilled had been a substance that lasts in the environment for a longer time. Oil, for instance.

After the accident, the CPUC tried to require stronger track at Cantara Loop, to keep it from happening again.

“We were trying to adopt regulations where there were none,” said King. But they couldn’t. The railroad sued the CPUC, and eventually the court sided with the railroad, reinforcing the Federal Railroad Administration’s jurisdiction. There is a large rail in place on the bridge now, to help keep trains from derailing into the river. According to the CPUC, there have been four derailments in the area since 2009.

“Our role is limited,” King said. “Our role is to ensure that the regulations that the federal government has in place are followed.”

Beefing Up Clean-Up 

Even if the the state can’t do all it wants to keep an accident from happening, it can prepare to respond to one.

In June, dozens of fire fighters, public health experts and Red Cross volunteers gathered near Cantara Loop to run a drill. The scenario was that an oil train had collided with an illegal marijuana grower’s truck at the site of the ’91 spill. The truck wrecked, and the train derailed and spilled oil into the river. 

Firefighters pulled the casualties (volunteers marked with paint) away from the scene, a helicopter brought tools to treat people who’d been doused in dangerous chemicals and a team deployed a drone to get a view of the (largely imaginary) disaster scene from above.

“We want to make sure California’s prepared to respond,” said Alexia Rettalack of California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR). “Spills happen. When product moves, things happen.”

OSPR got more money in this year’s budget, so that it can prepare for inland oil spills. Until now, the agency focused only on marine accidents. The state Office of Emergency Services is also looking for ways to better prepare emergency responders, many of whom are volunteers, for an oil train explosion. And state lawmakers are considering a couple of crude-by-rail bills that would improve emergency responses.

Dietrich emphasizes that what happened in Dunsmuir in 1991 was a rare event, and yet, the memory lingers.

“It comes down to we care about our river and about our towns,” he said. “And we hope that the agencies and the railroad are on top of it.”

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About the Author ()

Molly Samuel joined KQED as an intern in 2007, and since then has worked here as a reporter, producer, director and blogger. Before becoming KQED Science’s Multimedia Producer, she was a producer for Climate Watch. Molly has also reported for NPR, KALW and High Country News, and has produced audio stories for The Encyclopedia of Life and the Oakland Museum of California. She was a fellow with the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism and a journalist-in-residence at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Molly has a degree in Ancient Greek from Oberlin College and is a co-founder of the record label True Panther Sounds.
  • Ron Schalow

    The Dot-111 tanker car is not suited for hauling watered down skim milk. It should go. But it is not the main reason for the violent and deadly explosions that have occurred in the last 12 months. The newer 1242 model cracked open during the Lynchburg derailment going 24 mph.

    And, there can never be enough inspections and upgrades of the railroad tracks, and oversight of train movements, but we’ve been trying to keep trains on the tracks in this country for nearly 200 years, and there were still over 1,250 derailments in the U.S. in 2013. Everything helps, but trains will continue to derail.

    The explosions; the 300 foot fireballs, walls of fire, incinerated buildings, vaporized humans, fouled water, and poisoned soil…are primarily due to one simple fact, and it has to stop…

    Years ago; Bakken oil producers made a business decision to not strip the NGL’s from the crude before shipping; AKA “stabilization.” They deliberately chose not to remove the heptane, pentane, methane, propane, butane, ethane, isobutane, and, so on, from the crude oil, before filling the tanker cars. They make more money if they ship it all.

    They picked a few extra bucks, over the lives of people. Greed. Why North Dakota allowed it for so long…we can only speculate.

    North Dakota Leaders, if there are any, need to take immediate responsibility for the Bakken oil train explosions, and the safety of U.S. citizens, by mandating Bakken producers to separate the explosive NGL’s from the crude, or burn them off, before the next Lac-Megantic. Not after.

    New tanker cars will take years, and won’t solve the problem.

    Rail cars have never stayed on the tracks.

    Flare off the explosive components, and do it now.

    North Dakota needs to mandate it, but pressure needs to be applied, to persuade ND politicians to make policy contrary to Bakken oil producer wishes.

  • CharliePeters

    Ethanol transported by rail?

    Dr. Stan’s California water & fuel supply opinion

    http://mediaarchives.gsradio.net/radioliberty/121213d.mp3

  • Jim MacDonald

    The
    Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution was designed to eliminate an intense rivalry between the groups of those States that had tremendous commercial advantage as a result of their proximity to a major harbor, and those States
    that were not near a harbor. That disparity was the source of constant economic battles among the States.The Commerce Clause authorizes Congress to regulate commerce in order to ensure no State enjoyed an economical advantage over other States based on their access to a centralized shipping points. Example of this was the inspection of fruit and vegetables before produce could enter State. Some States were making the process so lengthy the produce would rot before getting entry into the state. If a State wishes a higher level of safety on commerce in or leaving the State it can do so. With the consent of the shipping State it can require a higher level of safety on incoming commerce. It is when the shipping and receiving States
    disagree on standards does the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution applies. The commerce clause
    of the Constitution is about State’s rights not citizen’s or railroad
    rights. Although the U.S. Constitution places some limits on State power, the States enjoy guaranteed rights by virtue of their reserved powers pursuant to the Tenth Amendment. A State has
    the inherent and reserved right to regulate its domestic commerce. The Constitution recognizes State solventry over commerce therein.
    Powers not granted to the federal government by the Constitution, nor prohibited to
    the States, are reserved to the States http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenth_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution
    Their goal was to prevent the growth of the type of
    government that the British has exercised over the colonies.
    http://tenthamendmentcenter.com/about/about-the-tenth-amendment/