On track for disaster
Are the North State’s and other railway communities prepared for the hazards posed by millions of barrels of explosive oil heading into California?
North America’s gradual shift toward oil independence could come with a hefty price tag as more and more crude oil from production sites in Canada and North Dakota enters California by rail. Much of the combustible cargo is arriving via the Feather River Canyon tracks, with some through the Interstate 5-Sacramento River corridor, and the concern about accidents, spills and disasters is spurring warnings from environmentalists and leaders and is already moving officials expecting the worst into precautionary action.
State funds have been set aside for inland oil spill cleanup efforts, but such a gesture may be too little, too late, some opponents have argued. While barring all oil deliveries by rail is an unlikely prospect given the demand for the product, what environmental groups and some politicians want to see immediately are tightened safety regulations, as well as public disclosure of information about the shipments—which rail lines and oil companies have been reluctant to release. But the wheels of change are moving too slowly, critics argue, even after several trains derailed and exploded in the past year—including the one that crashed and caught fire in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47.
Oil shipments by rail into California are increasing at an alarming rate. Trains delivered no oil at all into the state in 2008, about 50,000 barrels in 2009, and 6 million barrels in 2013, according to a recent report from the state titled “Oil by Rail Safety in California.” In 2016, 150 million barrels—almost a quarter of the oil California consumes annually—will arrive by train, according to the report’s forecast. The report also states that “industry is currently investing heavily in rail infrastructure and rail tank cars,” apparently as oil producers plan on moving more and more oil over land by train rather than pipeline.
To Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, this investment is a move in the wrong direction.
“In an age when we’re trying to revert away from dirty fossil fuel use, we don’t think it makes sense to develop the infrastructure to move this oil,” she said. Her group has estimated that at least 4 million people in Northern California alone live close enough to train tracks that a serious explosion could injure or kill them.
Perhaps nowhere else in California does the potential for a deadly oil-related accident seem more real than in the North State. After all, few locals in the town of Dunsmuir, and in the communities along the rest of the Upper Sacramento River gorge, have forgotten the chemical spill in 1991, when a train derailed and dumped 19,000 gallons of herbicide into the river, all but destroying more than 40 miles of river. Virtually everything downstream of the accident died. The famed trout fishery was gone, and fishing was not allowed again until four years later, when the river was finally recovering.
Mike Sabalow, a retired track foreman in Mount Shasta who worked for the rail industry from 1984 to 1993, says that 20 years ago trains derailed with regularity along the tracks of the Upper Sacramento River corridor.
“We’d go a while with none, and then we’d have a few all at once, about one each month,” he said. Improvements in the years since have reduced the risk of such accidents. However, Sabalow says the “shit-happens factor” never goes away. Trains can easily derail on winding lengths of track, he says, especially if they are loaded too heavily in the rear.
In the Upper Sacramento River canyon, two trains have derailed in the past 13 months. In one of those events, cargo tanks fell into the river. Fortunately, they were empty at the time.
“These two incidents remind us that perfection is hard to achieve,” said Phil Detrich, executive director of the Dunsmuir-based nonprofit River Exchange, a group founded following the 1991 chemical spill with the intention of preventing other events like it. Detrich warns that a crude-oil spill is likely to occur if the oil and rail industries don’t become more proactive in ensuring safety. Newer models of rail cars with stronger shells that can withstand a crash better than conventional ones are available, but oil shippers are not required to use them.
“We’re hoping to see improved safety standards for the tank cars [carrying the oil] and increased militancy in following safety protocols in their industry,” he said.
Detrich doesn’t think it feasible that demand will decrease for the oil being shipped into the state. What can be done, he says, is reduce the risk of spills and explosions by improving track conditions, requiring stronger tank cars for carrying oil and enforcing strict speed limits around vulnerable areas, like on high mountain passes and near towns.
Union Pacific, which operates crude oil trains that pass through the Upper Sacramento corridor, has reduced train derailments by 23 percent in the past 10 years, according to company spokesman Aaron Hunt. This reduction has followed improved track maintenance and industry safety standards.
But that doesn’t change the fact that trains carrying combustible fuel are derailing all around the country, some resulting in massive fiery explosions. Prior to 2010, there were “several” incidents each year involving spilled or mishandled oil during train trips in the United States, according to the state’s report. Each year since, that figure has climbed. In 2013, there were 155 incidents involving crude oil shipped by train. In 2014, there already have been more than 90 incidents involving oil spilled along railways, according to the report.
While some crude oil burns relatively slowly, much of the incoming shipments are of a type called Bakken, which is exceptionally pure in its crude state and easier for refineries to treat. It is also more vaporous, however, which makes it extremely flammable and potentially dangerous. Bakken oil has been involved in several large explosions in the past two years, including the disaster in Quebec. It comes mostly from North Dakota, where the infamous technology of fracking, which blasts huge amounts of water blended with sand and chemicals into the ground to loosen oil deposits, is now producing about a million barrels per day. Tar sands deposits in Alberta are also generating large quantities of oil destined for the United States.
Predictably, rail companies are downplaying the chances of serious accidents along their tracks. In a recent risk assessment conducted for the city of Benicia, where plans are advancing to ramp up deliveries by train to the town’s Valero refinery, it was calculated that just one oil train might derail every 111 years on a 69-mile length of tracks between Roseville and Benicia. That calculation factors in two 50-car trains arriving every day and includes spills as small as 100 gallons. The report also calculated that a spill into Suisun Marsh, a wetland near the refinery, would virtually never occur, the odds being placed at once in 262 years.
Christopher Barkan, a professor with the University of Illinois and executive director of the school’s railroad engineering program, was commissioned to make this assessment. Barkan, who declined to comment on the report, also works for the Association of American Railroads. He has told other news outlets that his affiliation with the industry did not influence his calculations.
After a huge though nondeadly explosion occurred along a Virginia rail line in April, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered railways to disclose information about any Bakken oil shipments of more than a million gallons to state emergency officials. The information was intended to be shared only with emergency responders and officials with “a need to know,” though not the general public. Controversy ensued. Rail companies argued that disclosing the information to the public would endanger trains and communities along their routes.
Then, in late June, the federal government mandated that the information be made fully public. However, details about oil shipments by rail remain difficult to track down. For example, BNSF Railway has reported that one train per week loaded with more than a million gallons of Bakken fuel will be passing through Northern California via the Feather River Canyon, though the exact schedule for such deliveries has not been released.
Lena Kent, spokeswoman with BNSF, told the Chico News & Review that route information could not be provided for security reasons. She also declined to provide information on what type of oil, and how much of it, BNSF is shipping.
This is precisely the kind of information that must be shared to ensure safety, argues state Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis), who, with Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), has authored legislation that would require rail operators transporting hazardous materials to provide the funding needed to prepare emergency crews statewide for dealing with rail accidents involving spilled, burning oil. Wolk told CN&R she believes more information must reach emergency responders in communities through which oil trains are passing.
“The people who come into contact with an accident need to have the equipment they need to address it, the right training and strong lines of communication,” Wolk said. She says the public, too, has a right to know more about the oil trains moving along California’s rail lines.
While the reluctance to share information with the public seems to be hinged on the notion that terrorists or vandals might put it to ill use, activists and critics of the oil lines have been quick to note that disasters are already occurring independent of criminal action.
“The train in Quebec was abandoned by the crew, and it rolled off down the hill,” said Daniel Barth, an independent environmental activist in Chico. “It’s not like they were guarding it from vandals.”
Suma Peesapati, a staff attorney with the San Francisco-based group Earthjustice, points out that oil train terrorism is at this point an imagined hypothesis while the results of accidental incidents are already proving tragic.
“This is happening without any kind of nefarious activities from would-be bad people,” she said. “These trains are exploding because of accidents and dilapidated railways.”
The nation’s railways are by and large worn out, Peesapati says, and failure of old decaying bridges is a serious risk. Major rail lines run alongside the Sacramento and the Feather rivers—each a major supplier of the state’s drinking water.
“A spill here could cripple the state’s economy,” Peesapati said.
Following the Quebec disaster, much discussion has taken place about the quality and strength of the tank cars being used to carry crude oil. The Quebec train was pulling DOT-111 “legacy” tank cars, initially designed to haul nonhazardous liquid goods and widely considered to be too thin-hulled and unarmored for carrying potentially explosive materials.
The DOT-111 cars, still widely used to carry oil, have been called “soda cans on wheels” by critics and are being phased out of use. A more advanced car, the CPC-1232, is considered an improvement over the DOT-111s. The CPC-1232 car, however, was involved in the fiery explosion in Lynchburg, Va., in April.
Even a more advanced model is far from accident-proof. A study from the Department of Transportation found that a newly proposed tank car with a fortified 9/16th-inch-thick shell would breach 4 percent of the time in derailing incidents, compared to as much as 13 percent of the time for the CPC-1232 cars and more than a quarter of the time for the DOT-111s.
Spokespeople for both Union Pacific and BNSF deflected responsibility, saying in emails that their companies do not own the rail cars used to transport oil and other hazardous materials and that they are simply using the equipment provided by shippers. Hunt at Union Pacific says the rail industry has lobbied for increased standards on rail cars.
But Bailey at the Natural Resources Defense Council says rail companies have been far from proactive in working toward greater safety in their industry. Rail companies, she says, have refused to reroute their oil trains around and away from communities.
“And that’s after the explosion at Lac-Mégantic,” she said. “If they insist on using rail transportation, we insist they not cut corners on safety standards.”
Rail companies also have objected to an idea now circulating of imposing a speed limit on oil trains of 30 miles per hour, claiming it will cost them hundreds of millions of dollars.
As a preliminary defense move against a rail-side oil spill, Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a new budget that grants state emergency crews access to a $55 million piggy bank that was previously reserved strictly for marine oil spills. Inland oil spills have historically required officials to work with limited resources and staffing, according to Alexia Retallack, spokeswoman with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state branch responsible for leading oil spill cleanups.
“But the new source of funding will allow us to respond rapidly with a fast, vibrant cleanup effort,” Retallack said.
“We’ve recognized that Bakken oil is starting to move through California and increase in the California market,” she added. “The tar sands oil [development in Alberta] is increasing, too. This shift in the oil market has created concern.”
Retallack says marine oil spills are generally easier to manage than inland ones, where steep terrain can impede crew access and moving river waters can disperse spilled oil across large areas. She said she could not speculate on damage caused by hypothetical spills, but anyone can imagine the challenges and ecological impacts if an oil train were to derail on the precarious Clear Creek Trestle over the Feather River or in the narrow gorge of the Upper Sacramento River.
While the governor’s provision of cleanup funding is a gesture in the right direction, Peesapati feels that planning so far ahead is, in a sense, counter-effective.
“We need to talk about prevention, not cleanup,” she said.
With projections forecasting oil-by-rail imports to skyrocket by about 25 fold within two years, Peesapati expects accident frequency will rise, too.
“We’re still at the beginning of the trajectory,” she said. “Already, we’re seeing oil spills and accidents every month or two. The facts speak for themselves, and so do the images. Look at Lac-Mégantic in Quebec. The entire town center was incinerated.”
The sheer volume of oil moving into the state by train is massive. The Cosco Busan tanker that collided with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 2007 spilled 54,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay, soiling the shoreline and soaking thousands of birds—but that spill, Retallack says, amounted to just 1 1/2 rail cars’ worth of crude oil. By comparison, trains entering California are hauling vastly more.
“We’re talking about 35 to 100 cars [per train],” she said.
In California, trains deliver crude oil to almost two dozen refineries in the Bay Area, the Central Valley and Los Angeles, passing through heavily populated areas and over treacherous mountain passes as they go. These refineries handle 1.6 million barrels of crude oil daily, turning about half of it—more than 30 million gallons each day—into gasoline.
A growing amount of this oil is produced by fracking, and Barth—the activist in Chico—feels Californians have set a double standard as they wage war against instate fracking while simultaneously guzzling more than 50 million gallons of fracked Bakken oil every year. Butte County’s Board of Supervisors, like other communities in the state, is slated to consider prohibiting the practice.
“It’s NIMBYism,” Barth said. “We don’t want fracking in California, but we’ll use fracked oil from North Dakota.”
Barth says he is not in favor of fracking but would like to see a greater collective awareness of Americans’ use of fossil fuels. California, after all, consumes about 650 million barrels of oil every year—about 800 gallons per person.
“The demand for oil is dispersed throughout society,” he said. “People need to wake up to the true costs of our lifestyles and think about the severe impact they’re having when they drive, use an air conditioner or buy a flatscreen TV.”