Tank cars carry concerns

Deadly derailments involving crude oil spur calls for safety upgrades

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 
photoClick to enlarge.

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.”

Unacceptable risk

photoClick to enlarge

As the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, has indicated, there’s no one approach to improving rail safety.

The federal agency, which makes recommendations but has no regulatory authority, says developing strong safety cultures and procedures, requiring railroads to select oil-train routes that avoid populous areas, and making upgrades to train-control technologies also are part of the mix.

To be sure, though, “multiple recent serious and fatal accidents reflect substantial shortcomings in tank car design that create an unacceptable public risk,” the NTSB says.

And while railroad industry leaders note that roughly 99.998 percent of hazardous material moved by rail safely reaches its destination, critics point to the potentially catastrophic nature of the .00199 that doesn’t, as well as the big jump in oil-train traffic. The NTSB, citing a railroad industry report, says oil-laden rail traffic increased by 443 percent since 2005 and this growth “is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.” It is urging the industry and government regulators to act quickly to address safety problems.

In Washington, nearly 17 million barrels of oil were hauled across the state by rail in 2013 alone, according to the state Department of Ecology. That’s up roughly 40 percent in one year. Before 2012, virtually all of the state’s oil came by way of pipeline and marine vessel.

It’s not that industry hasn’t previously acted to implement safety measures.

More than two years ago, the Association of American Railroads voluntarily adopted a more durable tank-car design, known as CPC-1232, for cars ordered after October 2011. The design, which improves on the DOT-111 model, includes normalized steel heads and shells, half- or full-height head shields, at least 7/16-inch head and shell thickness, top-fittings protection and a high-flow pressure relief valve.

Tesoro is among several companies to embrace the CPC-1232 tank cars. In February, the Texas-based refiner said it would replace its full fleet with the post-October 2011 cars before building its terminal at the Port of Vancouver, where crude would be transferred to ships for transport to U.S. refineries.

However, federal transportation safety experts say upgrades to those cars don’t go far enough.

While the post-October 2011 tank cars exceed current federal standards, the NTSB says it’s “not convinced that these modifications offer significant safety improvements.” The agency is pushing for tank cars that are more resistant to punctures, including better thermal insulation and thicker shells.

It also cites another problem with the post-October 2011 models: they have bottom outlet valves that have broken open in crashes and spilled hazardous materials. The railroad industry has recognized the issue, the NTSB says, but has failed to remove or improve the devices.

The reason, the NTSB says: A task force for the Association of American Railroads “concluded that although bottom outlet removal would be a significant improvement to tank car release performance and could be easily accomplished, removing the bottom fittings would have (a) major impact on existing loading and unloading infrastructure.”

Asked to respond to the NTSB’s assessments of safety shortfalls in post-October 2011 tank cars, Jennifer Minx, a spokeswoman for Tesoro, said in an email to The Columbian: “Our new cars are above and beyond federal regulations. They are CPC-1232s, or better, equipped with reinforced shields and relief devices, and address concerns with the older DOT-111s.”

She also said: “While we believe these cars offer more protections, we will also continue to evaluate new technologies and their effectiveness as data become available.”

Tesoro would own and deliver much of the oil to its Port of Vancouver facility, at least initially. But other companies, not just Tesoro and Savage, would be able to use rail to ship oil to the port.

Asked what, specifically, Tesoro will do to encourage other companies to deploy safer tank cars, Minx said in her email: “We will make rail car design a part of commercial considerations with all business partners who may ship crude oil into our facilities.”

Suffice it to say, industry and federal regulators don’t have much time to implement additional protective features.

Tank cars can remain in service for 20 to 30 years, Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the NTSB, said during recent Senate testimony, so it’s imperative that industry and regulators “take action now to address hazards that otherwise would exist for another half-generation or longer.”

Next-generation car

Aiming to accelerate the transition to sturdier tank cars, BNSF Railway seeks to purchase its own fleet of 5,000 tank cars that will exceed the safety standards set for the post-October 2011 cars. It’s an unusual move: Most rail cars are owned by companies that lease them to shippers, or by shippers themselves.

BNSF’s next-generation tank cars would feature 9/16-inch shell and head thickness; steel jackets; full-height, ½-inch-thick head shields; a thermal protection system that incorporates ceramic thermal blanketing; an appropriately sized pressure relief device capable of surviving an ethanol-based pool fire; and a bottom outlet valve handle that can be disengaged to prevent unintentional opening.

Currently, no such next-generation tank car exists.

Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said the company has requested bids to build the vehicles, a process that hasn’t wrapped up yet. She said it’s still too early to say when the next-generation tank cars will be put into service.

As BNSF moves to equip itself with next-generation tank cars, The Greenbrier Companies girds to become a supplier of such vehicles.

The company, which builds rail cars and marine barges, says its planned “tank car of the future” will exceed the post-October 2011 design in all of the relevant categories. What’s more, Greenbrier says it will offer retrofit packages to beef up the post-October 2011 tank cars, and to shore up the older DOT-111 vehicles.

Modifications to the post-October 2011 cars would include improved bottom outlet valves. The DOT-111 upgrades would include high-flow pressure relief valves, head shields, thermal protection and an improved bottom-outlet device.

That’s not to say Greenbrier views next-generation and retrofitted tank cars as panaceas. “No tank car is going to be impervious to breach, you need to start from there,” said Jack Isselmann, a spokesman for the company. “But the idea here is when a derailment occurs, you want to create a general purpose tank car that is more resistant to breach.”

Isselmann said customers face a five-figure investment for each retrofit and a six-figure outlay per next-generation car.

And while Greenbrier “will gladly receive customers who want that solution anytime,” he said, “our view is you are not going to see substantial investment until there is regulatory certainty.”

That certainty has yet to arrive. As the Associated Press recently reported, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told lawmakers that regulators are working as quickly as they can to get tougher tanker car regulations written and approved.

But Foxx said some oil companies have failed to provide the data he requested. He also said the agency within his department that regulates flammable liquids is understaffed. “We have a million shipments of hazardous materials moving around this country every day, and we have 50 inspectors,” Foxx said.

For its part, the Port of Vancouver is urging federal officials to implement the highest possible safety standards and to do so quickly. In March, for example, Coleman and other port officials traveled to Washington, D.C., where they met with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.; the staff of Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, and representatives of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The port’s call for upgrades includes stricter standards for tank cars. As Coleman put it, the port wants the “best technology that’s out there,” including the shell, shield, thermal and other improvements planned by BNSF Railway and Greenbrier. “Make that the standard through regulations,” Coleman said.

The port also wants to see the older, DOT-111 tank cars phased out. “It wouldn’t be our place to determine exactly how that’s done but, again, sooner rather than later,” said Theresa Wagner, the port’s communications manager. Likewise, the Association of American Railroads is now calling for additional safety improvements, including a phase-out of older cars.

Critics say it’s testimony to the enormous political influence of oil companies and railroads that it has taken this long for U.S. regulators to consider action. “We have known for decades that the older model DOT-111s are unsafe,” said Eric de Place, policy director for Sightline Institute, who’s produced several analyses of oil-train safety issues. The post-October 2011 tank cars still come with serious safety flaws, he said. In fact, most cars that derailed in Lynchburg, Va., were built after 2011, including the one that ruptured and spilled 30,000 gallons of oil into the James River, according to the NTSB.

When major battery malfunctions occurred on Boeing’s flagship jets, posing a threat to public safety, regulators swiftly grounded them, de Place said. When you have outdated trains carrying volatile oil exploding and killing people, he said, “it seems to me, the right solution is to stop shipping it in those tank cars — yesterday.”