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Northern Colorado officials back proposed tighter regulations on oil trains

Northern Colorado officials back proposed tighter regulations on oil trains

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File Photo by Joshua Polson/jpolson@greeleytri | The Greeley Tribune
Crews work to clean up several train cars that were derailed and flipped along the tracks back in May of 2014 near the intersection of Highway 394 and Weld County Road 31 northwest of LaSalle.

Oil train derailments/crashes

Location Date No. of cars Speed Gallons lost

LaSalle May 9, 2014 5 9 mph 7,932*

Lynchburg, Va. April 2014 17 23 mph 30,000

Vandergrift, Pa. Feb. 2014 21 31 mph 10,000

New August, Miss. Jan. 2014 26 45 mph 90,000

Casselton, ND Dec. 2013 20 42 mph 476,436

Aliceville, Ala. Nov. 2013 26 39 mph 630,000

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, proposed rulemaking. Note: All crude or crude oil accidents involved a train transporting more than 1 million gallons of oil.

*This figure is derived from the Environmental Protection Agency, which investigated the potential of oil seeping into the nearby South Platte River. The rulemaking summary calculated the loss on this derailment to be 5,000 gallons of crude.


Public comment

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation has opened public comment on proposed stricter standards governing oil and ethanol trains for the next 60 days.

Send comments, noting the docket number [Docket No. PHMSA-2012-0082 (HM-251)] to:

» Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting comments.

» Fax: 1 (202) 493-2251.

» Mail: Docket Management System; U.S. Department of Transportation, West Building, Ground Floor, Room W12–140, Routing Symbol M–30, 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE., Washington, D.C. 20590.

All submissions must include the agency name and docket number for this notice at the beginning of the comment. To avoid duplication, please use only one of these four methods. All comments received will be posted without change to http://www.regulations.gov and will include any personal information you provide. All comments received will be posted without change to the Federal Docket Management System (FDMS), including any personal information.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

Northern Colorado’s first oil-train derailment in recent memory could have been much worse.

The last five cars of a 110-car oil train derailed west of LaSalle on May 9, dropping almost 8,000 gallons which came dangerously close to the South Platte River. None of it fouled the river, as crews worked feverishly to vacuum oil spewing from one tank that punctured and excavate the oil that spilled on the ground.

For many, it was a wake-up call as oil train traffic increases with every well drilled in the prolific Wattenberg Field.

Federal regulators had already been considering tighter rules on oil trains throughout the country after explosions and derailments made headlines in the last year. Now, they’re calling for public comment on formal proposed rules to reduce such accidents.

While Weld County has yet to experience oil train fatalities, officials know increasing oil train traffic means flirting with disaster.

“Any time you’re increasing those numbers, you’re increasing the odds of an incident occurring. It’s kind of the law of averages. We’ve been fortunate so far, but it doesn’t mean we’re immune. It’s always in the back of our mind.
— Dale Lyman, fire marshal for the city of Greeley

“On these things, it’s never if — it’s when,” said Carl Harvey, police chief and operations manager for the town of La Salle, which has a rail switchyard in the middle of town.

“It’s just one of those things. We know it’s going to be our turn one day,” he said. “We’ve not had any hazardous materials spills. We’ve had a couple of derailments that didn’t amount to anything. But again, next time, it could be our turn.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation last week proposed stricter safety standards on oil trains, including notifying emergency managers every time hazardous materials (including crude oil and ethanol) cross a state’s borders. The rules also call for reducing oil train speed limits in urban areas, a phased-in requirement of puncture-resistant rail cars; dual break systems, and increased track equipment inspections.

The agency has opened a 60-day public comment period during which residents can put in their two cents.

“These are a good start from my perspective,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D.-Colo., who called for immediate changes to rail safety standards after the LaSalle derailment in May. “I’ll continue to press them to follow through and want to make sure they’re doing everything possible to reduce the risk of fuel train disasters in Colorado and across the country.”

Though Weld County has been relatively hazard-free when it comes to trains — thought to be a much safer mode of transportation than by truck — it could be a matter of time as rail traffic increases with more crude being shipped.

Rail traffic has increased immensely across the country. In 2009, the number of crude carloads was at 10,800. Last year, that number rose to more than 400,000 carloads. In 2008, there were around 292,000 rail carloads of ethanol shipped throughout the country; in 2011, that number increased more than 40 percent to 409,000.

Both have experienced derailments and accidents. Crude has been more prevalent beginning in 2013; shipments involving ethanol were more prevalent from 2006-2012.

“Not surprisingly, this growth in rail traffic has been accompanied by an increase in the number of rail derailments and accidents involving ethanol,” the proposed rulemaking summary states.

The summary said there were no mainline train accidents involving crude in 2010. So far this year, there have been five across the country with the LaSalle derailment being the latest and the smallest.

In all, those accidents resulted in spills of almost 140,000 gallons of crude. In 2013, there were only two such accidents, but they involved more than 1.1 million gallons of crude spilled.

The American Association of Railroads on July 17 reported increased overall train traffic in the prior week was up 4.8 percent from the same time last year. Shipment of petroleum products grew to 15,331 carloads that week, up 16.2 percent from the same time a year prior. Coal shipments decreased 5.3 percent in that time.

Petroleum shipments, percentage-wise, were only behind motor vehicle shipments in that time, according to the AAR.

In May, the Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring rail companies to notify state emergency agencies any time more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude came through their borders. Bakken crude, which comes from Bakken shale in North Dakota, is viewed as more flammable by some officials.

So far, Weld County has received no notices of Bakken crude coming through town, said Roy Rudisill, emergency manager for Weld County.

That may be because not all trains reached that threshold, but it also is likely Bakken crude isn’t being transported through Weld’s rail corridor, which essentially mirrors U.S. 85, with some small short-line rails jutting across I-25 to Fort Collins, or connecting smaller transloading facilities to the larger lines.

A lot of oil is transported through Weld via pipelines, including the Pony Express, which takes oil from the Bakken through the northeast corner of the state to pipelines connecting eventually to markets in the Gulf Coast. White Cliffs, a pipeline that starts in Platteville, and connects through another serious of pipelines to the coast, was just expanded as well.

Though railways typically keep their cargo private, Rudisill said he does get annual reports of what the railways ship through Weld — including oil, coal, chlorine, ammonia and other hazardous materials.

That communication, alone, is enough to keep first-responders training on the worst-case scenarios.

“The rule itself is good intentioned, but I think we already know what’s being shipped through here,” Rudisill said. “Those are hazards and risks. We just want to make sure we stay on top of things.”

Rudisill said the lack of hazardous rail accidents through Weld, so far, has fostered a stronger level of comfort on the rail front.

“We understand there is a hazard with rail transportation. But we haven’t had a lot of accidents, so it’s not a high risk for us,” Rudisill said.

Dale Lyman, fire marshal for the city of Greeley, agreed that there was no cause for heightened sensitivity given the accident record in the Weld area so far. In his 28 years, he can’t remember one hazardous rail incident.

But the odds are changing.

“Any time you’re increasing those numbers, you’re increasing the odds of an incident occurring,” Lyman said. “It’s kind of the law of averages. We’ve been fortunate so far, but it doesn’t mean we’re immune. It’s always in the back of our mind.”

Lyman said he would be interested to see the proposed rules come into effect, if only to know exactly when such shipments are coming through.

He said the LaSalle/Milliken derailment in May woke up emergency responders in the area to the potential.

“It definitely brings it closer to home, and we start thinking about what we’d do,” Lyman said. “With rail going through Greeley, it’s concerning because it’s really close to residences. As a firefighter, you look at those things and think about” the what-ifs.

With any new rules comes the question of enforcement. Only the Colorado Public Utilities Commission has some say about rail travel in Colorado, and they’re concerned about rail crossing safety.

At present, the U.S. Department of Transportation is the only agency that enforces rules along the rail lines. The Federal Railroad Administration, which reports to the DOT, has inspectors on the ground in every state, who are called in on every train accident, FRA officials report. They oversee more than 160,000 miles of track throughout the country, only a tiny portion of which are in Colorado.

There are six inspectors based in Colorado and they are among 41 inspectors who could be dispatched to train accidents in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois. There are more than 400 inspectors throughout the country, according to the FRA.

The inspectors are responsible for random inspections of track and safety equipment, and adherence to federal regulations.

Only certain types of rail accidents, however, merit a federal investigation. FRA investigators usually will not look into an accident unless it involves loss of life.

In the LaSalle derailment, for example, there weren’t any injuries, let alone loss of life. The cause has finally been determined to be bad track alignment due to a soft roadbed, said Mark Davis, spokesman for Union Pacific. He said crews have already made the necessary repairs.

EPA inspector Craig Myers was at the crash site for days, noting that no crude got into the South Platte River, and all oil was excavated and removed from the site. Officials from the sate and Weld County departments of health also were on scene.

Udall said the proposed new rules are being supported by many involved in transporting oil.

“When you have the regulated, like the oil producers and shippers, and communities and consumers saying we think the risks right now are larger then the ones we want to embrace, that’s the way it should work,” Udall said. “There are always a few naysayers … In this case, clearly all the involved parties want to do more to protect public health and reputation of oil producers and manufacturers. That’s a good place to start.”

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