Tank cars carry concerns

Deadly derailments involving crude oil spur calls for safety upgrades

May 11, 2014 — Aaron Corvin — The Columbian

For the oil transport industry, disasters keep getting in the way of their reassuring messages about the safety of shipping crude by rail.

Last month’s fiery derailment in Lynchburg, Va., of a train carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken region, which spilled oil into the James River and prompted evacuations from the city’s downtown, marked the latest oil-train calamity to grab headlines. That incident, which added to at least seven others in the U.S. and Canada in the past year, again ratcheted up the pressure on the industry and regulators to improve the safety of oil shipments that increasingly are leaving communities along rail lines on edge.

In Washington and Oregon, the safety issue looms large as 11 refineries and port terminals are planning, building or already operating infrastructure to support oil-by-rail cargoes amid a boom in domestic crude production. And it reverberates in Vancouver, the would-be site of the Northwest’s largest oil-by-rail transfer terminal and a pass-through to other oil-train hubs in the Northwest.

At the forefront of a forest of concerns is the safety of tank cars carrying volatile crude oil through cities large and small. Oil and transportation industries, their critics and government regulators all agree that safety improvements need to be ramped up. But they part ways on the scope and timing of certain efforts, and on the effectiveness of particular safety measures.

U.S. officials have recommended shippers not use older, puncture-prone tank cars and have ordered railroads to inform state emergency management officials about the movement of large amounts of crude through their states. But their Canadian counterparts have gone further, initiating a series of safety actions, including phasing out by May 2017 the older, soda can-shaped DOT-111 tank cars — long cited for their deficiencies in exacerbating accidents.

Some companies, including Tesoro Corp. — part of a joint venture to build an oil-train facility at the Port of Vancouver — and Global Partners, owner of an oil-train terminal in Clatskanie, Ore., already are adopting more rugged, industry-endorsed tank cars ahead of anticipated new federal regulations. BNSF Railway says it will purchase 5,000 tank cars that go beyond even the most recent safety standards.

Yet, national transportation experts say even the upgraded tank cars adopted by Tesoro, Global Partners and others don’t offer significant safety improvements. And critics, including Seattle-based Sightline Institute — a nonprofit that focuses on sustainability issues — say more than 25,000 of the DOT-111 tank cars will remain in service through at least the end of 2015, despite the shift toward safer cars. By law, railroads cannot refuse shippers that want to put the older tank cars on their rails.

Locally, Tesoro and Savage Companies want to set up a rail-and-river transfer operation handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day at the Port of Vancouver. The port is pressing federal officials to implement stricter safety regulations, including requiring companies to deploy the most technologically advanced tank cars possible. The port’s executive director, Todd Coleman, said the only way for the Tesoro-Savage oil terminal to be successful is if the Washington state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which is reviewing the proposal, is able to “provide a pretty foolproof plan” to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say over the project.

“The only way that’s going to happen,” Coleman said, “is if things change, and you’ve got the safest, most reliable transportation logistics system available.”

Meanwhile, The Greenbrier Companies, the Lake Oswego, Ore.-based manufacturer of rail cars and marine barges, says it will build a new-generation tank car and offer retrofit packages to bolster the safety of those already in service. But company officials caution that even the best tank car can only minimize risk, not eliminate it.

Backers of oil-train facility proposals face intense public opposition that likely won’t subside even if tighter tank car safety standards are adopted. In Vancouver, for example, a majority of the City Council opposes the Tesoro-Savage oil terminal. And while the port wants to see its lease with the companies — involving 42 acres and worth at least $45 million over an initial 10 years — turn into a successful project, critics urge the port to cancel a pact they view as too risky.

During a recent port hearing, Den Mark Wichar, a resident of Vancouver’s Hough Neighborhood, took aim at the source of the oil Tesoro and Savage want to haul to Vancouver: the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, where crude is extracted by hydraulic fracturing.

Regulators in the U.S. have warned that explosive derailments in Lac-Megantic, Quebec (which involved DOT-111 tank cars, and where 47 people were killed and much of the downtown was wiped out), North Dakota and Alabama indicate Bakken crude “may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.” The train that derailed and went up in flames in Lynchburg was laden with Bakken crude, too.

To bring such a volatile substance “within explosive distance and upwind from schools is unacceptable,” Wichar told port commissioners. “It is immoral, and it is unacceptable. Period.”

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