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National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)

Train Cars Carrying Undocumented Hazardous Materials Pose Risks

By Minnesota Public Radio News - Prarie Business, September 25, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

At least 18 times in the past three years BNSF Railway freight trains rolled west out of Minneapolis pulling cars filled with hazardous chemicals that were not on the trains’ official cargo list, according to train crew complaints.

That’s contrary to federal regulation because in case of an accident, local firefighters can be left in the dark, unable to take quick action to protect vulnerable residents.

In one case, a train traveled more than 20 miles through the western suburbs with six carloads of anhydrous ammonia, a toxic corrosive gas used as a farm fertilizer, before the train crew knew the chemical was on the train, a complaint said. In another, a complaint said a train traveled about 90 miles west to Willmar before its cargo list — called a manifest — was corrected to show an extra car of ammonia.

The complaints were filed with the Federal Railroad Administration, the federal agency that regulates railroads, and they provide a snapshot of one rail line across Minnesota, a BNSF Railway line from Minneapolis to Willmar. BNSF is the largest rail operator in Minnesota. Provided to MPR News by railroad union members, they are evidence of a problem the FRA said poses “unreasonable risks to health, safety and property.”

Hauling hazardous material without proper documentation is a problem federal officials have been aware of for years. When federal inspectors checked manifests of all rail haulers in Minnesota over a three-year period, one in five contained inaccurate information about cars hauling hazardous materials, according to FRA records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Crew Fatigue Persists as Oil By Rail Increases Risks

By Tony Shick - Earth Fix, July 22, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

On a November morning in 2003, a sleeping Union Pacific crew missed a signal in Kelso, Washington. Their train collided with the side of an oncoming BNSF Railway train. Fuel tanks ruptured and spilled 2,800 gallons. Total damage neared $3 million. Unlike a similar collision in the same spot 10 years earlier, the crews escaped alive.

The primary cause, according to investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board: the crew’s fatigue, brought on by irregular work schedules and sleep disorder.

The NTSB had been asking the Federal Railroad Administration to address both issues for years. It made similar recommendations again a year later, after fatigue caused a fatal derailment involving chlorine gas in Texas.

Then in 2011, the crew of a BNSF coal train in Red Oak, Iowa, fell asleep and instead of stopping struck the rear of a parked equipment train, crushing the cab and killing the crew of the coal train, sparking a diesel fire and causing $8.7 million worth of damage.

The primary cause of the accident: the crew’s fatigue, brought on by irregular work schedules and sleep disorder.

Fatigued crews, crude oil increase risk for disaster

Sleeping train crews are the primary cause in at least eight major train crashes investigated by the NTSB since 2000, according to the agency’s reports.

The true prevalence of fatigue in train crashes is likely far higher, said Mark Rosekind, a member of the NTSB specializing in the subject. Human error is the leading cause of train incidents and accidents, and Rosekind estimates fatigue underlies anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of those.

“It’s very likely we have grossly underestimated fatigue in pretty much everything we’ve looked at for a long, long time,” Rosekind said.

The rapid rise in shipments of hazardous crude oil has raised the stakes for addressing fatigue, he said.

Fiery derailments have prompted intense public scrutiny and calls for improved oil train safety measures, including heftier tank cars and better-equipped emergency responders. Meanwhile, fatigued and unsafe crews remain an unresolved problem for the industry — a problem that rail workers and union officials in the Northwest say has worsened in recent years.

BNSF Nears Shift To One-Member Crews, Possibly Even on Dangerous Oil Trains

By Cole Stangler - DeSmog Blog, July 19, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

For decades, the U.S. railroad industry has successfully shed labor costs by shifting to smaller and smaller operating crews. Now, it’s on the verge of what was once an unthinkable victory: single-member crews, even on dangerous oil trains.

A tentative agreement reached by BNSF Railway and the Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) union would allow a single engineer to operate most of the company’s routes. It would mark a dramatic change to a labor contract that covers about 3,000 workers, or 60 percent of the BNSF system.  

It’s not just bad news for workers. The contract has major safety implications—especially amid North America’s dangerous, and sometimes deadly, crude-by-rail boom. Last year’s Bakken shale oil train derailment and explosion in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people, brought increased scrutiny to oil trains. 

Fox Guarding Henhouse: Oil-By-Rail Standards Led by American Petroleum Institute

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog Blog, July 9, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

“How did it get missed for the last ten years?”

That was the question Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), posed to a panel of industry representatives back in April about how the rail industry had missed the fact that Bakken oil is more explosive than traditional crude oil.

“How do we move to an environment where commodities are classified in the right containers from the get go and not just put in until we figure out that there’s a problem,” Hersman asked during the two-day forum on transportation of crude oil and ethanol. “Is there a process for that?”

The first panelist to respond was Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of environmental and hazardous materials for the Association of American Railroads (AAR). His response was telling.

“We’ve know about this long before Lac-Megantic and that is why we initiated the tank car committee activity and passed CPC-1232 in 2011,” Fronczak replied, “To ask why the standards are the way they are, you’d have to ask DOT that.”

So, now as the new oil-by-rail safety regulations have been sent from the Department of Transportation (DOT) to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, it seems like a good time to review Hersman’s questions.

How did we miss this? Is there a process to properly classify commodities for the right container before they are ever shipped? 

CSX Train Carrying 8,000 Tons of Coal Derails in Company’s Second Wreck in 24 Hours

By Brandon Baker - EcoNews, May 1, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

A train derailed early Thursday morning in Bowie, MD marking the second derailment for CSX Corp. in 24 hours.

CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay told the Associated Press that about 10 cars of the train traveling from Cumberland, MD to Bowie derailed Thursday. The train had three locomotives and 63 railcars, all of which were carrying coal. The train originated from a coal mine in Pennsylvania. 

The train was carrying about 8,000 tons of coal.

One of the train cars overturned, spilling its load of coal, but there were no injuries reported in the incident. CSX spokesman Gary Sease said the company would investigate the derailment. He said increased rain may have played a role, but it’s too early to say.

Federal Pipeline and Oil-by-Rail Regulator Making 9% Staff Cut, Confounding Experts

Federal Pipeline and Oil-by-Rail Regulator Staff Cut, Confounds Experts - Job cuts come at a time when PHMSA is struggling to regulate the nation’s aging pipeline network and new pipelines tied to the oil and gas boom.

By Elizabeth Douglass - Inside Climate News, April 24, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

If employees accept all of the available buyouts, PHMSA will shrink to a full-time staff of 386, putting it 112 jobs short of its approved payroll for the current fiscal year.

The federal regulator for petroleum pipelines and oil-toting railcars is offering employee buyouts that could shrink the agency’s staff by 9 percent by mid-June—a step that has confounded observers because the agency is widely regarded as being chronically understaffed.

Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) spokesman Damon Hill said the buyout offers are meant to “help the agency manage attrition in areas where a large and growing number of employees are eligible for retirement by offering an inducement for a limited number of employees to voluntarily retire or resign.”

Hill said PHMSA is continuing to hire in key areas at the same time. “I understand how some folks may be looking at [the buyout effort], but it’s part of an overall plan to retain expertise and plan for retention and things like that,” he said. “There is some good that comes out of this.”

Still, the job cuts come at a time when PHMSA is already under considerable duress. Politicians and the public have been pushing the agency to more rigorously regulate the nation’s aging pipeline network as well as the many new pipelines tied to surging domestic oil and natural gas production. A spate of damaging pipeline spills and oil-by-rail accidents is adding to the workload, exposing PHMSA’s shortcomings and intensifying scrutiny of the agency.

Official Tipped Off Hess Rail Yard About Oil-Carrier Inspection

By Cole Stangler - In These Times, April 29, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Emails obtained by In These Times show a cozy relationship between North Dakota’s oil industry and a chief federal inspector charged with monitoring the safety of shipping crude oil by rail. The emails cast serious doubts on the integrity of the federal government’s supposed crackdown on the industry’s shoddy shipping practices—a subject of growing concern in the midst of a largely unregulated, and in some cases, deadly, transport boom.

Last August, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Agency (PHMSA) and Federal Railroad Administration announced they were rolling out the “Bakken Blitz”—a crackdown on shippers and carriers that mislabel their cargo. Federal hazmat regulations require trains carrying oil to properly classify and identify their shipments with placards. These practices are supposed to ensure that oil is safely packaged before being shipped. They’re also aimed at informing railroad personnel and, in the event of a mishap, any emergency responders. Regulators introduced the Blitz just one month after the Lac Mégantic disaster, when a runaway freight train carrying oil exploded in the small Quebec town, killing 47 people. In that case, Canadian safety investigators found American shippers in North Dakota’s Bakken region had understated the volatility of the oil that ignited and destroyed much of Lac Mégantic’s downtown area. Improper classification caused the shipment to be transported in an improper package. Emergency responders, too, were caught by surprise at how quickly the fire spread and how long it burned.

As part of the Department of Transportation’s new enforcement effort, PHMSA officials show up unannounced at rail facilities to conduct classification inspections—at least that’s what an agency spokesperson told In These Times at first. An email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request strongly suggests that Kipton Wills, Central Region Director of PHMSA's Office of Hazardous Materials Enforcement, pre-arranged at least one of his agency’s visits to a Hess Corp. rail yard in Tioga, North Dakota, last October.

“We will accommodate your request to inspect trucks at the Tioga Rail Terminal,” Jody Schroeder, the rail terminal supervisor, wrote in an email to Wills dated October 3, 2013—five days before the inspection took place. “At your convenience please let me know your schedule for this event.”

Schroeder later confirmed that Wills reached out to him about the visit.

Earlier this month, PHMSA spokesperson Gordon Delcambre told In These Times that such inspections are impromptu. “They’re unannounced,” he said. “[Inspectors] figure out who they’re going to visit ahead of time, make plans, go to the area and then start knocking on doors.”

Indeed, this is normal procedure. The agency’s handbook notes “the policy of the PHMSA hazardous materials enforcement program is to conduct unannounced inspections.” Exceptions can include cases of “apparent imminent danger to enable the company to correct the danger,” instances where special preparations, records and equipment are necessary, and cases where “giving advance notice would enhance the probability of an effective and thorough inspection.”

Read the entire article here.

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