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Lawmakers Calling for Stricter Rules for Trains Hauling Volatile Crude Oil to Ensure Public Safety

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The wreckage after an oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013.

When residents in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic describe the scene after an oil-train derailed and then exploded there last July, they say the burning petroleum was like a wall of fire, or a river of fire. The blaze, which burned for 36 hours, sent flames and smoke hundreds of feet into the air. At one point, the fire was pulling in so much oxygen that nearby trees were whipping about as if in a tropical storm. Several blocks from the blast site leaves turned an orange-red color from the overwhelming heat. It was early summer, but they looked like autumn foliage.

The explosions and fire destroyed some 40 buildings and killed 47 people, most of whom were enjoying live music at a popular cafe. Wooden homes along the lakeshore burned from the inside out as fire erupted out of water pipes, drains, and sewers. A 48-inch storm pipe that runs from the train yard to the nearby Chaudière River became a conduit for the petroleum, spewing flames and oil more than half a mile into the water. “It looked like a Saturn V rocket,” says Robert Mercier, director of environmental services in Lac-Mégantic. Manhole covers on the Boulevard des Veterans exploded as columns of fire shot into the air.

By the time the fire had been contained, the soil surrounding the blast site was a layer of grey ash. “It was like being on the moon,” says Sylvaine Perreault, an emergency responder who arrived early Saturday morning. “It was all dust.”

On Friday, July 5, a 79-car train carrying petroleum from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields had been parked for the night on a modest but steady incline in the town of Nantes, seven miles outside of Lac-Mégantic. The sole engineer employed to secure the train and responsible for applying handbrakes in some of the cars left his shift at 11:25 p.m. At 11:30 p.m. a 911 call was made reporting a fire on one of the locomotives. Twelve firefighters from the town of Nantes arrived, along with two track-maintenance employees from Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the company operating the train. They extinguished the fire and left the scene. Just before 1:00 a.m. the train began to roll down the incline. It eventually reached a speed of more than 60 miles per hour before it careened off the track toward the Musi Café nightclub and exploded.

Rejean Campagna, a 73-year-old Lac-Mégantic native, was awoken by the sound of the train screeching past his apartment and then of steel piling on steel. “As if somebody had a big drum of steel and was hammering on it with a sledgehammer right beside my window,” he told me. The train tracks are a scant 200 feet away from Campagna’s front window, and when he opened the blinds the first thing he saw was a large ball of fire. “It grew and grew and grew and then it mushroomed.”

Campagna and his wife, Claudette Lapointe, grabbed their pillboxes and cell phones and fled. The hood of their car was so hot that he couldn’t touch it. (According to Mercier, the heat could be felt for more than a mile.) From a safe distance, about a quarter-mile away, they watched as the town burned. In the early morning hours a steady rain began to fall. The surface of Campagna’s umbrella was so warm that when the drops of water bounced off it they sent spirals of steam into the night. If not for the rain, Campagna says, the whole town would have been destroyed. “The rain saved us,” he says.

Lapointe lost two cousins. Campagna knew everyone who lived in the homes along the lake, some of whom also died. Roger Paquette, a 61-year-old friend of Campagna’s, could not be awoken in time. “Neighbors tried to wake him up, but the back of his house was already on fire,” he says. “All of these people never had a chance to get out of their homes, so swift was the flow of fire.”

Lac-Mégantic residents had little warning they were in danger. Few residents interviewed for this article knew that millions of gallons of highly flammable light crude oil were passing through their lakeside village nearly every day. When it comes to transporting oil by rail, the railroad industry and oil and gas companies operate in near total secrecy, with little federal oversight or regulation to ensure public safety.

The oil moving through Lac-Mégantic was mislabeled – classified as packing group III instead of packing group II or I, which refer to more dangerous substances with lower flashpoints. A hazardous-materials inspection team issued safety warnings in 2011 and 2012, but no changes have been made to tank cars since then. Inspections of loading facilities in the Bakken oil fields conducted in October 2011 and June 2012 found that there were shortages of suitable rail cars; those in use were often being overloaded; and, because of the many different companies involved in transferring and shipping the oil, compliance was difficult to enforce. According to those inspection documents, which were obtained by NBC News shortly after the Lac-Mégantic accident, shippers were regularly using tank cars that did not meet industry specifications. “The pressure to ship those cars was more than the risk of failure in transportation or discovery by FRA [Federal Railroad Administration],” the inspectors noted. They also said the oil was extremely flammable and warned truck drivers and inspectors to take special precautions. “Fire retardant clothing, and grounded equipment, truck and rail cars are mandatory due to the high flammability of the crude and possibility of static discharge.”

The criminal investigation into the accident in Lac-Mégantic, which has focused on the question of whether the brakes were properly secured, was completed in late March. Charges had not been issued, though they were anticipated, when this story went to press.

Even as federal regulators discuss new safety measures – updating or retrofitting the standard petroleum tank cars, reducing train speeds near towns, and performing spot inspections of oil trains – oil trains continue to roll through towns and cities across the United States and Canada. In the last six years the quantity of oil being shipped by rail across North America has increased dramatically. Most of that increase comes from the recently tapped shale oil fields in North Dakota. The Bakken formation is now producing more than one million barrels of crude oil a day, and more than 60 percent of that is shipped by rail. According to the American Association of Railroads, there were 9,500 rail cars carrying crude oil in 2008. Last year there were more than 400,000.[Story from Earth Island Journal.]

In the wake of several recent rail disasters, lawmakers in Wisconsin and Minnesota are calling for new measures to improve oil train safety.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Ron Kind on Monday sent a letter urging President Barack Obama to impose new rules governing trains hauling volatile crude oil, like one that exploded after derailing near Galena, Ill.Lawmakers calling for new oil train rules

The Department of Transportation has proposed new rules, including new tank car standards, better classification for liquid petroleum products, route risk assessment planning for railroads and reduced speed limits for oil trains.

But the White House did not act by the Jan. 15 statutory deadline to release final rules. Kind and Baldwin asked the president to issue the final rules — with additional safety measures.

“It is time for you to take action,” the Wisconsin Democrats wrote in their letter to Obama. “We believe that recent accidents make clear the need for rules stronger than those originally proposed.”

They requested rules that would require shippers to stabilize oil — by taking out explosive gases like propane and butane — before it is transported as well as stricter safety standards for the tank cars that haul it.

Two recent derailments — in Galena and in West Virginia — involved cars built to the new safety standards proposed by the DOT.

Kind and Baldwin also called for lower speed limits and enhanced braking on trains carrying flammable materials and for increased transparency about the shipment of oil.

In Minnesota, two state lawmakers plan to unveil an oil train safety initiative Tuesday.

House Deputy Minority Leader Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, and Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, are proposing rail crossing enhancements along with a plan to make railroads pay for public safety improvements.

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Citizen’s Group Challenges Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s Permit to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Allowing Railway Expansion

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A BNSF Railway freight train loaded with crude oil burns near the Illinois Wisconsin border last week near Galena, Illinois.

As crude oil trains rumble through Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), responsible for issuing permits for bridges over navigable water, has been challenged by “Citizens Acting for Rail Safety” for its recently permitted rail expansion in the La Crosse River marsh.

Following a fiery train derailment last week in Galena, Illinois, near the Wisconsin border, the Department of Natural Resources is facing a legal challenge over its permit to allow wetland filling and building a bridge to facilitate more crude oil shipments through the state.

With help from the nonprofit Midwest Environmental Advocates, members of the group Citizens Acting for Rail Safety filed a petition for judicial review in La Crosse County Circuit Court asking a judge to block a wetland permit and to require the DNR to complete a more thorough environmental review of the project.

The DNR last month granted BNSF a permit to fill 7.2 acres of the marsh and build a bridge over the river as part of a plans to add about four miles of new tracks through the city of La Crosse between Farnam and Gillette streets.

At the root of their concerns are the growing number of trains hauling highly explosive crude oil from North Dakota, such as the 105-car train that derailed last Thursday near Galena, Ill., causing at least five cars to burst into flames.

That fire continued to burn until Sunday morning, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the response and monitoring the nearby Galena and Mississippi rivers for potential contamination.

“The marsh project being considered is one of a series of projects intended to facilitate even more traffic flow,” said Ralph Knudson, one of the petitioners. “An Environmental Impact Statement would compel a thorough look at all aspects of construction and operation of rail lines for opportunities to minimize risk and protect the marsh environment and public assets.”

DNR water management specialist Carrie Olson previously said the department decided against a full EIS because her two-month review of BNSF’s permit application covered most of the same ground.

But Sarah Williams, staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, said that does not comply with the state’s Environmental Policy Act.

The petition says the agency did not take into account the environmental and public safety risks associated with the derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials, the disturbance to neighbors from increased train traffic and the incremental impact of continuing to fill in the marsh, which has been reduced over the years to about half its original size.

It also questions the transparency of the review process.

Knudson wondered whether anyone would have known about a Jan. 7 public hearing — attended by more than 150 people — had the citizens groups not publicized it, according to a report by Chris Hubbuch of the Lacrosse Tribune.

While the DNR posted a legal notice of the meeting, the agency did not send out a press release.

“Our strategy here is just to really have our public service agencies — in this case the DNR — be as accountable as possible for what their mission is, and to be as open as possible about their process,” he said.

BNSF’s La Crosse project is one of 13 planned upgrades the railroad is making to its route along the Mississippi River between the Twin Cities and the Illinois border.

BNSF says the La Crosse upgrade will ease delays at each end of what is the area’s only section of single track. Opponents say it will lead to increased train traffic, a position supported by the railroad’s permit applications.

The marsh project is still awaiting a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is still considering BNSF’s application. State and federal lawmakers have joined the call for a comprehensive study known as an Environmental Impact Statement.

The citizens also petitioned the DNR for an internal review of the permitting process. In each case, the DNR and BNSF will now have an opportunity to respond before any ruling.

The suit says the DNR did not conduct a full environmental impact statement when it granted the permit to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) for a second set of tracks through the La Crosse River Marsh.

More than 40 oil trains now rumble through the state each week from North Dakota, many with more than 100 tank cars, some passing through Sauk, Columbia and Jefferson counties.

Petitioners are asking the La Crosse County Circuit Court to reverse a permit granted last month and force the DNR to do a more thorough analysis under the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act (WEPA), a 1972 law that required sound decision-making by state agencies.

“As we have seen with recent derailments like the one that happened in Galena, last Thursday, today’s rail traffic is much riskier than a few years ago,” said Ralph Knudson of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety in a statement. “The marsh project being considered is one of a series of projects intended to facilitate even more traffic flow.”

Changes to NR Chapter 150 in 2014 now allow the state to meet requirements of WEPA without doing an environmental assessment. This change in state law allowed the bridge and wetland permit to go forward with a minimum amount of public review, according to the Madison offices of Midwest Environmental Advocates, which is assisting the citizen’s group.

“Compliance with WEPA isn’t just a paper exercise or a box to check,” said MEA attorney Sarah Williams.

The lawsuit notes a series of risks with the expansion of rail traffic through the La Crosse marsh.

They include:

• the threat of a more train derailments with increased shipments of hazardous materials

• impact on nesting bald eagles

• noise and air pollution for neighbors living near the tracks

• filling of the La Crosse River Marsh, which has already been reduced to half its original size by previous developments.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis) on Monday issued a joint statement calling for the Obama Administration to take immediate action to address oil train safety. The U.S. Department of Transportation was to have finalized new rules to address oil tank car safety but has missed a Jan. 15 deadline.

The statement noted that just a few years ago it was rare to see an oil train in Wisconsin but today more than 40 oil trains a week pass through the state, many with 100 or more tank cars.

“The danger facing Wisconsin communities located near rail lanes has materialized quickly,” the statement said. “It is clear that the increase in oil moving on the rails has corresponded with an uptick in oil train derailments.”