Officials not keeping track of oil trains
By James Pilcher
Domestic oil production, including that in Ohio, keeps growing. And with oil being produced in new areas that don't have pipelines, more crude is heading to refineries in rail cars. Yet neither federal nor state regulators track the shipments that are increasingly crisscrossing the country - potentially cutting through neighborhoods and business districts nationwide and in Greater Cincinnati.
Much of the oil apparently is more volatile than traditional crude, with some experts saying it is as explosive "as gasoline." A number of oil tanker accidents and explosions made headlines last year, including last July's derailment and explosion in Québec that killed 47 people and all but leveled a small town. The train was pulling at least a dozen tank cars carrying crude pulled from Bakken shale deposits.
Similar types of oil are being pulled from shale fields all over the U.S. including eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania and North Dakota.
"Regulators across North America simply have not kept up with the boom in moving oil by train," said Keith Stewart, a Canadian-based researcher for the environmental group Greenpeace. "You would be shocked how little governments know how much and where and when this oil is moving by rail."
Federal regulators don't know what is on the tracks at any given time. Nor do first responders and community officials, apart from getting a list of the top 25 hazardous materials that move through their communities. But due to security concerns, local officials can't make the top 25 lists public. Railroads must keep a list internally, but those records also are not public.
The lack of disclosure could pose a problem for a city such as Cincinnati, which has one of the Midwest's largest railyards in CSX-owned Queensgate, which sits near Downtown. Several other heavily traveled lines owned by CSX and Norfolk Southern cut through other area cities and towns such as Covington, Erlanger, Blue Ash and Fairfield. An Enquirer review of federal hazardous material incident data since 1971 shows no local reports of crude oil shipments problems by either rail or truck - although the data include several mishaps involving gasoline.
"All kinds of hazardous materials go through (Queensgate) and no, we're not notified of what is going through when," said Cincinnati Fire Department District Chief Tom Lakamp, who oversees special operations and hazardous materials response teams for the city. "It's impossible to plan for. So we just try to have enough materials and manpower on hand. ... I mean who knows where something might happen in the city or the area?"
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration oversees the shipments of all hazardous materials, including crude oil, superseding state regulators for rail shipments. The agency did not make anyone available for interviews, but said in a statement that it was starting to look at changing its rules and was taking a closer look at oil shipments. That includes inspection of trains leaving North Dakota wells, along with possibly requiring safer tank cars.
All that's called 'crude' is not necessarily the same
The United States is poised to become the world's largest combined producer of natural gas and crude oil in the coming year, according to federal data, which indicate the country produced 7.5 million barrels of oil a day last year. Oil industry officials saying national production has been above 8 million barrels per day since November.
Ohio is a part of that growth, due to the wells in the eastern part of the state pulling up oil and natural gas from Utica shale reserves. The state produced 16,000 barrels of oil a day last year, up more than 23 percent from 2012.
But even as oil production has grown, pipeline infrastructure hasn't kept pace. That's forced oil producers and refiners to turn to rail shipments, especially in remote areas such as North Dakota, but also in Ohio. The railroad industry reports that crude oil shipments nearly doubled in 2013 as compared with 2012, with the American Association of Railroads estimating that more than 400,000 tank loads of crude arrived by rail last year.
A single tank car holds about 714 barrels of oil, and each barrel contains 42 gallons, meaning every tank car contains 30,000 gallons of oil. But an Ohio oil industry official says the majority of what's called oil produced and shipped in the state is " very volatile" and "basically liquefied natural gas," even as he points out that Ohio oil has been pumped and shipped safely for decades.
"It is still classified as crude oil, even though it is a lot closer to gasoline," said Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Natural Gas Association. "The bottom line is that it should be treated differently than other crude oil."
Stewart says most of Ohio's oil is shipped out of state - although refineries in Ohio and Kentucky are starting to take on this volatile oil.
Finally, the oil is being shipped in outdated tanker cars. The National Transportation Safety Board started recommending in 1991 that oil companies stop using the older model of tanker because they have proven not to prevent spillage and explosions in case of derailments. It renewed its call this January.
"You've got one of the most profitable industries in the world looking to save a few dollars at the cost of safety," said Fred Millar, a Virginia-based rail/hazmat safety consultant who has worked with major cities on safety planning.
Locally, CSX officials say the company is taking "a top to bottom review" of how it ships oil. However, CSX declined to say if crude oil was included on the top 25 hazardous materials list for Cincinnati or Queensgate. Nor would company officials say how many trains come through daily. Previous reports, however, indicate that the 160-acre rail yard handles at least 100 trains a day.
"CSX is resolved to put into place equipment, standards, regulations, practices, and training to ensure that all commodities handled by railroads are handled in the safest manner possible," the company said in a statement.
Issue creates tensions; changes on the way?
Tension abounds between the oil and rail industries over the shipments, even as railroads court oil producers as customers.
Many carriers - including CSX and the Genesee & Wyoming railroad - actively market their capacity to oil producers. But on the other hand, national railroad officials openly acknowledge differences with the oil industry over safety standards.
"The shippers own the cars and the materials and are responsible for safe packaging and labeling, but we're the ones liable in case of an accident," said Holly Arthur, spokeswoman for the American Association of Railroads.
The rail industry last month agreed with the U.S. Transportation Department to voluntarily impose tighter procedures, including:
Installing better brakes on trains with 20 or more oil cars.
Limiting speeds to 40 miles per hour on trains with 20 or more rail cars in highly populated areas.
Increase track inspections on lines that carry trains with heavy oil traffic.
Oil industry officials say they are also trying to improve safety, but have not yet agreed to any specifics. "Our mitigation efforts are looking at topics like tank car design and crude oil testing and classification," said Jack Gerard, president and chief executive officer for the American Petroleum Institute.
As for the regulators, PHMSA is studying new variations of the domestically produced oil and its potential volatility. It's also double-checking that domestic oil is property categorized and shipped.
Critics say that isn't enough, saying that government and industry need to catch up and start keeping better track of oil shipments.
"This is clearly dangerous stuff ... and that should be of concern to citizens everywhere, especially in areas where there is a lot of train activity," Greenpeace's Stewart said.
The Cincinnati Enquirer, March 30, 2014