On July 6th 2013, an unattended 74-car freight train carrying crude oil ran away and derailed in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic resulting in a fire and explosion. The estimated 1-kilometer blast radius killed 47 people and destroyed more than 30 buildings in the town’s centre. The highly volatile Bakken formation crude oil that caused this disaster is explicitly forbidden from entering Alameda County by rail as of now, but permitting is being sought to allow transport of crude to the central coast through the East Bay & the Bay Area.
These rail cars can frequently be seen parked for days, unattended, carrying flammable fuels like Ethanol and Tetrachloroethylene (classified as a Group 2A carcinogen). Cars that run through the artery of our town adjacent to the Amtrak Station, IKEA, the Bay Street Shopping Mall, The Public Market, the MacArthur Maze freeway interchange and the EBMUD Wastewater treatment facility that serves 650,000 people in Alameda county (Hmmmm, what could go wrong?).
Lac-Mégantic, located in the rural Canadian province of Quebec, has a population of about half of ours spread out over an area approx. 7X as large (8.41 sq mi). You can imagine what a disaster like this would do to a more densely populated area like ours. So called “Bomb Trains” with as many as 100 cars carrying as much as 2 million gallons of flammable liquid often stretch from Park Avenue …
… all the way to the Public Market/Amtrak Station:
The Blast zone from an accident or derailment of crude is visualized on the Site explosive-crude-by-rail.org and would extend nearly to San Pablo to the East and all the way into the Bay to the West (The Watergate/Marina & Triangle neighborhoods might be all that’s left of us!).
An increase in domestic fuel production has subsequently increased the demand for the transporting of more flammable fuels by rail. Not surprisingly, we’ve seen a similar rise in accidents, nearly 100 in 2013 accounting for more than 1.15 million gallons. More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail accidents in 2013 than in the preceding four decades. The outdated oil-tanker cars that were designed in the 1960’s are cited as inadequate and some, but not all, have been upgraded. The contents of these containers are labeled with a 4 digit UN number. The cars marked with 1276 are transporting crude oil, 1987 for Ethanol & 1897 for Tetrachloroethylene.
Currently, the Valero Benicia Refinery is seeking a permit that would allow transport of crude oil to The Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery that would carry crude through the Bay Area along the Capitol Corridor routes via the existing Union Pacific lines. Phillips 66 has filed an application with San Luis Obispo County for approval to extend the existing rail track to the refinery and install equipment needed to enable rail delivery of North American crude oil. An interactive map of the train routes have been documented on the mapping platform ArcGIS.com.
In reaction to some of these high-profile disasters, the U.S. government recently passed legislation that would phase out these older railroad tank cars that carry crude oil and other flammable liquids. Tens of thousands of these “DOT-111s” cars will have to be replaced or retrofitted under the proposed rules by 2017 for crude and 2018 for ethanol cars. The deadline for “less hazardous” flammable liquids would extend to 2020.
“This is a significant problem which has to be addressed.” replied Councilmember Nora Davis through email. “Federal laws make it difficult, [it] needs a regional approach. Material like this should never be stored in a dense residential/commercial area.” Locally, the City of Berkeley has been proactive and have drafted a resolution opposing any expansion of transport of crude through our railways. Emeryville has followed suit and passed a similar resolution “In addition to Council’s direction to us in the resolution on April 22nd, we have been working with our lobbyist in DC and Sacramento on the issue, in coordination with our legislators” according to city manager Sabrina Landreth.
Further Reading & Resources:
Safety concerns over trains carrying volatile crude oil to Bay Area | KTVU.com
Richmond warns of danger from Bakken crude by rail shipments | Richmond Confidential
U.S. to advocate for safety improvements of oil transport | PBS News Hour
Benicia Extends Public Comment Period on Bay Area Crude-by-Rail | KQED Science
U.S. Seeks New Rules for Rail Transport of Fuel | The Wall Street Journal
Santa Maria Refinery Rail Project
Watch the KTVU 2 Investigates Video segment: