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DeSmogBlog First to Publish North Dakota Oil-By-Rail Routes

9:40 am in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog 

A BNSF train engine heading north

Warren Buffett’s BNSF is a leader in moving fracked oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields.

For the first time, DeSmogBlog has published dozens of documents obtained from the North Dakota government revealing routes and chemical composition data for oil-by-rail trains in the state carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the Bakken Shale.

The information was initially submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) under the legal dictates of a May 7 Emergency Order, which both the federal government and the rail industry initially argued should only be released to those with a “need-to-know” and not the public at-large.

North Dakota’s Department of Emergency Services, working in consultation with the North Dakota Office of the Attorney General, made the documents public a couple weeks after DeSmogBlog filed a June 13 North Dakota Public Records Statute request.

“There is no legal basis to protect what they have provided us at this point,” North Dakota assistant attorney general Mary Kae Kelsch said during the June 25 Department of Emergency Service’s quarterly meeting, which DeSmogBlog attended via phone. “It doesn’t meet any criteria for our state law to protect this.”

Initially, oil-by-rail giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and other rail companies sent boilerplate letters — one copy of which has been obtained by DeSmogBlog from the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security through the state’s Public Records Act — to several State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs), arguing train routes should be kept confidential.

BNSF also sent several SERCs a boilerplate contract proposal, requesting that they exempt the information rail companies were compelled to submit to the SERCs under the DOT Emergency Order from release under Freedom of Information Act. A snippet of the proposed contract can be seen below:

Dan Wilz, homeland security division director and state security advisor of the Department of Emergency Services, said the claims did not hold legal water.

“Joe can stand on a street corner and figure that out within a week’s period,” Wilz said at the quarterly meeting. “They watch the trains go through their community each and every day.”

BNSF, Canadian Pacific Railway (CP Rail) and Northern Plains Railroad all submitted information to the Department of Emergency Services.

CP Rail: 7 Trains/Week, “Highly Flammable”

In its submission to the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, CP Rail revealed it sent seven oil-by-rail trains through 13 counties in North Dakota the week of June 9-15. CP Rail also estimated it generally sends 2-5 trains through those same counties during an average week.

Some oil-by-rail trains, dubbed “bomb trains” by some due to their propensity to explode, carry over 2,677,500 gallons of fracked oil. The trains are often over a mile in length and contain over 100 cars.

The company also released information on the chemical composition of the Bakken oil it sends on its rail cars, conceding that Bakken oil is “highly flammable” and “easily ignited by heat, sparks or flames.”

Further, CP Rail admitted that Bakken oil has “a very low flash point” and that “water spray when fighting [its] fire may be inefficient.”

BNSF: Bakken Oil-By-Rail King

BNSF, owned by Warren Buffett — a major campaign contributor to President Barack Obama both in 2008 and 2012 and one of the richest men on the planet — is widely considered the king of oil-by-rail in the U.S. The documents BNSF released to the Department of Emergency Services back up the notion.

One document shows BNSF sent 31 oil-by-rail trains through Cass County, North Dakota during the week of May 29 – June 4, also saying it sends between 30-45 trains per week on average through the County. That same week, 30 BNSF trains zoomed through Barnes County, North Dakota.

A document filed the next week, covering June 5 – June 11, shows 45 trains passed through Cass County that week. Another 37 passed through Ward County, North Dakota and another 33 through McHenryPierce and Mountrail counties.

Northern Plains: Chemical Composition Revealed

In its DOT submission, Northern Plains included an expansive Bakken crude oil sample chemical composition test submitted by Musket Corporation, which has a terminal and transload site in North Dakota.

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White House Meeting Logs: Big Rail Lobbying Against “Bomb Train” Regulations It Publicly Touts

10:21 am in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

The rail industry offers up claims about how much it cares about safety when speaking to the public. But behind closed doors, the public relations pitch goes by the wayside in favor of hard-nosed lobbying muscle to avoid accountability.

The Obama White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has held the majority of its meetings on the proposed federal oil-by-rail safety regulations with oil and gas industry lobbyists and representatives.

But OIRA meeting logs reviewed by DeSmogBlog reveal that on June 10, theAmerican Association of Railroads (AAR) and many of its dues-paying members also had a chance to convene with OIRA.

Big Rail has talked a big game to the public about its desire for increased safety measures for its trains carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the Bakken Shale. What happens behind closed doors, the meeting logs show, tells another story.

At the June 12-13 Railway Age Oil-by-Rail Conference, just two days after rail industry representatives met with OIRA, American Association of Railroads President Edward Hamberg, former assistant secretary for governmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), made the case for safety.

“Railroads believe that federal tank car standards should be raised to ensure crude oil and other flammable liquids are moving in the safest car possible based on the product they are moving,” said Hamberg.

“The industry also wants the existing crude oil fleet upgraded through retrofits or older cars to be phased out as quickly as possible.”

Yet despite public declarations along these lines, proactive safety measures were off the table for all four of Big Rail’s presentations to OIRA.

Though private discussions, the documents made public from the meeting show one consistent message from the rail industry: safety costs big bucks. And these are bucks industry is going to fight against having to spend.

Massive War Room

Those present at the June 10 OIRA meeting included representatives from AAR, the American Short Line & Regional Railroad Association, Union PacificBurlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), CSX CorporationNorfolk Southern and the DOT.

Akin to the gargantuan war room in the film “Dr. Strangelove,” 26 people took part in the session.

Invitees included Meredith Kelsch, senior attorney for DOT; Orest Dachniwsky, associate general counsel for BNSF; Robert Schmidt, senior manager of operations and casualty analysis for Union Pacific; and Richard Theroux, who has worked at the Office of Management and Budget — parent of OIRA — for nearly three decades.

“19th Century Technology”

The heading on the first slide of CSX’s presentation for OIRA stated, “ECP brakes are expensive and do not offer material safety advantages.”

ECP is industry shorthand for Electronically Controlled Pneumatic brakes, currently considered the best available brakes in the business.

At a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing in April, Richard Connor, safety specialist for DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), gave a presentation comparing the conventional air brake system used on most freight trains to the ECP brakes passed over by CSX.

“I’m not sure with the audience if you all understand how the current air brake systems on our freight trains out there operate today, but it’s basically 19th century technology,” said Connor.

Connor also described the performance of the brakes in an emergency situation as “painfully slow” in comparing ECP’s response time to that of the conventional braking system.

“One of the biggest advantages of ECP is that signal to apply your brakes…is going at the speed of light…it’s a much quicker signal,” he said.

Connor also discussed how ECP would “offer material safety advantages” over current technology in an oil train accident, even if expensive.

“For the purpose of why we would want ECP on, say, a unit train like these oil trains, [it’s] to reduce the impact of a derailment or reduce the damages caused by a derailment of these types of trains,” explained Connor.

“[The purpose] is you get a much quicker application, you reduce that kinetic energy involved with that train.”

Speed-Racing

BNSF serves as the Queen Bee in the oil-by-rail world.

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Pipeline Safety Agency Approves Startup of Keystone XL South

6:53 pm in Uncategorized by Steve Horn

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

No Tar Sands banner

Despite serious safety concerns and months of protests, Keystone XL South is approved for tarsands.

DeSmogBlog has learned that TransCanada cleared the final hurdle for the southern half of its Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, receiving a green light last week from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) following a review of several safety concerns.

TransCanada announced this week that it has begun injecting oil into the southern half of its Keystone XL pipeline in preparation for commercial operations.

Leading up to PHMSA giving Keystone XL south the go-ahead to start up, Public Citizen raised several questions about the safety of the pipeline.

Will TransCanada respond to greivances raised about dents, faulty welding, pipeline material designated “junk” and other issues raised in the consumer advocacy group’s November investigation? And what about September 10 and September 26 warning letters obtained by Public Citizen raising similar concerns from PHMSA to TransCanada?

Both TransCanada and PHMSA have provided DeSmogBlog answers to these questions.

Rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline Project” by TransCanada, the 485-mile Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas Keystone XL southern half — approved via a March 2012 Executive Order from President Barack Obama — is set to open for business by mid- to late-January.

PHMSA’s Initial Concerns

In September, PHMSA drafted two letters to TransCanada expressing concerns over the integrity of the pipeline during its construction phase.

“During the months of June and July 2013, a representative [from PHMSA]…inspected the construction of the Keystone Gulf Coast Project,” reads a September 10 warning letter from R.M. Seeley, Director of PHMSA’s Southwest Region Office to TransCanada’s Vice President Pipeline Safety and Compliance, Vern Meier. “As a result of the inspection, it appears you have probable violations of the Pipeline Safety Regulations, Title 49, Code of Federal Regulations.”

PHMSA’s September 10 warning letter said TransCanada had done a suboptimal job installing Keystone XL’s southern half, also writing that the coating utilized for Keystone XL’s southern half could easily degrade over time in the September 10 letter.

Two weeks later, PHMSA sent another warning letter to TransCanada on September 26, calling out TransCanada on its poor welding procedures. PHMSA could fine TransCanada up to $2 million, along with additional enforcement actions, if the company had failed to comply with PHMSA’s dictates outlined in both warning letters.

PHMSA Delays FOIA Response

After playing the “bad cop” role in its two September letters to TransCanada, PHMSA’s Southwest Office has backed off a bit.

In response to a FOIA request submitted by Public Citizen upon learning of the two September letters, PHMSA responded that, due to commercial reasons and the possibility of an ongoing investigation, Public Citizen will likely not be eligible for many of the records requested.

PHMSA Gives KXL South Green Light

TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard told DeSmogBlog he believes all is safe and sound with Keystone XL’s southern half.

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