2 Investigates: Safety concerns over trains carrying volatile crude oil to Bay Area

OAKLAND (KTVU) -- California used to receive all of its crude oil imports by ship and pipeline, but trains loaded with tanker cars full of oil are rolling through Bay Area neighborhoods with increasing frequency. And it's a growing safety concern among experts who say rail imports will become much more common in the next few years, bringing millions of gallons of crude to local refineries.  Much of that crude is a more volatile type of oil that has been linked to multiple derailments, fires, and deadly accidents. 

2 Investigates followed trains rolling through neighborhoods in Richmond carrying millions of gallons of crude oil, in tanker cars that have been deemed unsafe by the federal government. And the railroad is not required to tell local officials how many of those cars are carrying a more volatile oil from the Bakken shale formation, which stretches from North Dakota and Montana into Canada.

The transport of Bakken crude by rail has been at the center of federal investigations and calls for increased safety standards. It's delivered to the Kinder Morgan rail yard in Richmond, but local officials complain that they receive no notification of which trains are carrying Bakken crude.

Increased deliveries and increased danger

“These are trains that have up to 100 tank cars and those are filled with Bakken crude,” said Kelly Huston, Deputy Director with the Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES). “That's an entire train full of a much more volatile type of crude oil than we typically see on rail.”

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a warning that Bakken's light, sweet crude oil is prone to ignite at a lower temperature than traditional crude oils. Experts say lighter crudes contain more natural gas, and the vapors given off by the oil can ignite at much lower temperatures.

But the oil industry pushed back with its own study that disputed the government warning. The North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents more than 500 oil companies operating in North Dakota and Montana, commissioned a $400,000 study of Bakken crude. It determined the oil's characteristics are within the safety margin for the current fleet of rail tankers.

However, the state's Rail Safety Working Group –convened by the Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES) – wasn't convinced. It released a report that warns about the dangers of increasing the shipments of Bakken crude to California refineries. The report points to at least eight major train accidents involving Bakken crude trains in 2013 and 2014 alone.

“Incidents involving crude oil from the Bakken shale formation have been particularly devastating,” the authors warn. Smoke rises from railway cars carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013. Credit: Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press / AP

Some of the most notable accidents include a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013. Sixty-three tank cars of crude oil exploded, killing 42 people. Five other people were also presumed to be dead, but were never recovered.

In 2012, about one million barrels of crude oil were delivered to California by rail. But by 2013 that number had jumped to about 6.3 million barrels.  The California Energy Commission estimates that volume could increase by up to 150 million barrels, or 25% of total crude imports, by 2016.

According to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the primary source of the crude oil coming into California was from North Dakota, in early 2013. But by the end of that year, the state was receiving a dramatic increase in imports from Canada.

Old tanker cars

For more than twenty years, the federal government has been aware of major flaws in one of the most common tanker car designs used to transport crude oil across America.

According to a
1991 safety study from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the DOT-111 tanker has a steel shell that is too thin to resist puncture during an accident, is vulnerable to tearing, and has exposed fittings and valves that can easily snap off during a rollover.
Torn DOT-111 Tanker Car
And DOT-111s make up nearly 70 percent of oil tanker cars currently in use in the U.S., according to the NTSB. Critics say that shipping volatile Bakken crude in these tankers poses an “unacceptable risk” to public safety.

In his Congressional testimony in February, NTSB board member Robert L. Sumwalt cited multiple train accidents and derailments involving Bakken crude transported in DOT-111 tanker cars.

“The NTSB continues to find that accidents involving the rupture of DOT-111 tank cars carrying hazardous materials often have violent and destructive results,” Sumwalt said.

“Federal requirements simply have not kept pace with evolving demands placed on the railroad industry and evolving technology and knowledge about hazardous materials and accidents.”

This past summer, the DOT announced that it would propose stricter rules for transporting flammable materials by rail car, including Bakken crude. The plan calls for DOT-111 tanker cars to be phased out, unless they can be retrofitted to meet the new standards.

Last month, Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said that his group and the Association of American Railroads would jointly ask the DOT for six to 12 months for rail tank car manufacturers to prepare to overhaul tens of thousands of cars, and another three years to retrofit older cars.

But critics say the government's plan doesn't act swiftly enough.

Devora Ancel, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club, said the group has multiple concerns about Bakken crude trains coming into California, in particular in regards to the age of DOT-111 fleet.

“It is extremely alarming and the public should be concerned,” said Ancel. “It's being carried in rail cars that are unsafe. They were designed in the 1960's. They were not meant to transport highly volatile crude.”

The Sierra Club and Earthjustice submitted a petition to the DOT seeking an emergency order to ban the transportation of Bakken crude in DOT-111 tank cars. The petition acknowledges that the DOT's proposal for stricter rules is a step in the right direction, but stresses that two years is too long to phase out the DOT-111 cars.

“The last few years have witnessed a surge in shipments of highly flammable crude from the Bakken region, mostly in unit trains with dozens and often more than 100 tank cars carrying explosive cargo. The growth in the number and length of trains carrying crude oil is staggering,” the petition said.Modified DOT-111 Tanker Car in Richmond

Two trainloads of Bakken crude roll into the Richmond Rail Terminal every month, according to the city's fire department. But the fire officials tells KTVU that they've been reassured by Kinder-Morgan that the DOT-111 tank cars that make deliveries to Richmond have undergone additional safety modifications. Every individual tanker car carries more than 28,000 gallons of crude oil. 

Tracking routes

Trains entering the Bay Area carrying crude oil from Canada and North Dakota must pass through parts of California that are considered hazardous routes, according to Huston.  In the California Public Utilities Commission's (CPUC) annual railroad safety report, released in July, the agency said California has had 58 train derailments in the last five years, and primary cause has been a problem with the track at so-called “hazard sites.”

MAP: Rain Lines and Hazardous Areas in California

The state's OES report on rail safety also voiced concerns about risky routes being used to transport Bakken crude.  The Rail Safety Working Group complained that crude oil rail transportation is not regulated adequately.

The report states that crude oil is "not transported with the level of protection mandated for the degree of hazard posed," and also stressed there are "inadequacies in route planning to avoid population centers and environmentally sensitive areas, and a need for auditing rail carriers to ensure adequate response.”

One of OES's biggest concerns is that it receives very little information about the Bakken crude trains' schedules, and none of the data it does receive is in real time.

“Just like you would know where an Amtrak train is and whether is late to a station or not,” said Huston. “We should be able to know that about volatile substances like Bakken crude coming across our rail lines.”

Emergency response

The growing worries over the volatility of Bakken crude are particularly important for firefighters and other emergency responders who have to deal with derailments and possible fires.

According to the OES, the biggest areas of concern lie in the rural areas of Northern California, where emergency response crews are far from remote rail lines and wouldn't be able to respond to a spill or fire quickly. 

The OES report states that while there are emergency crews prepared to handle a crude tanker disaster in urban areas, “none are located near the high hazard areas in rural Northern California.” And HazMat teams that are located in more remote regions “are equipped to perform only in a support rather than lead role during a major chemical or oil incident.”

“If you get one of those trains derail and that stuff goes into the river that could affect an entire population's water supply, which is, in some cases, worse than having a derailment in a population center,” said Huston.
Valero-Benicia refinery firefighters simulate a leak on an oil tanker car and practice using foam to quell the vapors.
Last month, the Valero-Benicia refinery Fire Chief Joe Bateman led a training session with local fire departments that focused on tanker car fires. They simulated a leak on an oil tanker car and practiced using foam to quell the vapors. A small group of Richmond firefighters will attend a similar training in December, according to the Richmond Fire Marshall.

The Valero-Benicia refinery is seeking a permit to bring in crude-by-rail shipments. They would join Richmond and a planned refinery in San Luis Obispo that would also be supplied with crude carried by train through the Bay Area.

But the idea is meeting resistance from worried neighbors.

Benicia's city council must decide whether to approve a draft environmental impact report on the proposal. The $70 million terminal would receive two 50-car trainloads, carrying a total of about 70,000 barrels of crude oil, every day. The company has said that it will use newer tanker cars instead of the aging DOT-111s that have been involved in past accidents.

Chief Bateman insists that his crews are prepared if the worst should happen with a trainload of Bakken crude traveling through the Bay Area.

“I understand that it's a big increase. I understand the public is concerned by that,” Chief Bateman said. “If you look at some of the other rail cars that are already on the tracks today… we've been shipping commodities for a long time.” Bateman points out that some of those other substances are more volatile than crude oil, such as liquefied petroleum gas.
Placard 1267 Signifies Crude Oil
When first responders arrive at chaotic train accident scene, all the black tanker cars essentially look the same. The contents are distinguished by a red, diamond-shaped placard on the side of the car that displays a four-digit code. The code for crude is 1267, but there is no way for emergency crews to tell if the oil inside is the volatile Bakken variety.

In April, Canada banned the older tanker cars and ordered the controversial design be phased out within three years. Last month, another train carrying crude oil derailed in Saskatchewan, involving the same kind of rail cars. There were no casualties in that accident.

Up Next:


  • Popular

  • Recent

Stories You May Be Interested In - Includes Advertiser Stories