In the middle of the night a year ago, a runaway train laden with crude oil derailed in a Canadian town, igniting a firestorm that killed 47 people, some of them asleep in bed, vaporized buildings for blocks, and awakened rail cities like Sacramento across the continent to a new fear:
Could that happen here?
Although trains have long ferried hazardous materials, including crude oil and other potentially lethal products such as chlorine and ammonia, the amount of flammable crude oil now shipped by rail is unprecedented, and growing fast.
A string of recent derailments and explosions, some requiring evacuations, have prompted federal transportation officials to call for new safety measures, including stronger tanker cars and slower speeds for trains carrying a particularly volatile form of crude oil from the suddenly booming Bakken fields of North Dakota.
Bakken crude trains have been rolling through Canada and the Eastern United States for several years. In California, the crude oil by rail trend is just starting. Oil companies here are planning to receive up to 23 percent of their oil via rail shipments by 2016. Two years ago, only one-third of 1 percent of oil arrived at California refineries on trains.
As rail traffic has increased, the number of crude oil spills involving railroads in California has risen as well. California registered four rail-related crude spills or leaks between 2010 and 2012, according to the state database on hazardous-materials spills. The number jumped last year to 17. Twenty-six have been reported in the first half of this year.
The state saw 139 freight train derailments last year, up from 62 in 2010.
The vast majority of those incidents were considered minor. Most happened in railyards. One derailment caused a fire as a result of an alcohol spill. But Kelly Huston, deputy director of the state Office of Emergency Services, said cities, states and fire officials must make plans with the understanding that a bad incident could be just around the corner.
“It’s a simple matter of odds,” he said. “With more of these trains coming across, it is more likely there is going to be an incident. The magnitude – a small spill or a catastrophic event – is the uncertainty.”
What are those odds in the Sacramento region, which serves as a major rail crossroads and stop-over site?
Interviews and a review of state rail data suggest the likelihood is low but mounting.
Sacramento has experienced no spills in recent years, but fire officials are concerned. A Bakken train now traverses Sacramento to the Bay Area a few times a month. Another oil train regularly pulls into McClellan Business Park, where the oil is transferred to tanker trucks to the Bay Area. Next year, two more crude oil trains are expected to roll through Sacramento daily on their way to the Bay Area, possibly carrying Bakken. More could follow.
‘911 lines will light up’
Canadian officials are expected next week to announce the results of their investigation into what went wrong that July night in Lac-Megantic, a town of 6,000 just north of the Maine border. The Lac-Megantic train was pulling 72 oil tank cars, 63 of which derailed.
BNSF Railway won’t say how many oil tank cars its trains are pulling through Sacramento each month, but such trains typically haul 100 oil cars. Those trains come through the Feather River Canyon. They run alongside north Sacramento neighborhoods, past the Blue Diamond plant, the Spaghetti Factory restaurant in midtown, several light-rail stops, Sacramento City College and Luther Burbank High School, and exit toward Stockton after crossing Meadowview Road at street level.
Valero Refining Co. is pushing to run other daily crude oil trains starting next year on another rail line in Sacramento, next to the passenger platforms at the downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento and Davis Amtrak stations.
Unlike a flood or wildland fire, there would be no early warning for evacuations.
“The first thing you will hear are crunches,” said state Fire and Rescue Chief Kim Zagaris. “Then explosions. The 911 lines will light up like no one’s businesses.”
Fire chiefs say they have pondered the possibility of a Lac-Megantic incident, and concluded that while their firefighters are well-trained, a big crude oil fire with dozens of tanker cars strewn across streets would be something new, and a major challenge. They describe a possible scenario:
The first-responders could find buildings on fire next to the tracks, forcing them to set a fire line away from the derailment, sacrificing the nearest structures. Police would go door to door within a half-mile or perhaps a mile, ordering evacuations. City, county and state officials would staff a command center, miles from the fire. Hospitals would be put on alert. Gyms could become evacuation centers.
Oil from ruptured tank cars could flow into sewers, creating a possibility that firefighters dread, and that some veteran firefighters remember well. In 1991, a tanker truck overturned on Fair Oaks Boulevard in Carmichael, spewing gasoline into the sewer system. It caught fire and blew manhole covers a dozen feet in the air as flames shot out of the ground. Houses caught on fire. Three hundred people were evacuated, but no one was seriously injured.
Two years ago, a small fire in a single propane rail tank car prompted the evacuation of nearly 5,000 homes in the city of Lincoln in Placer County. Oil and gas fire experts were flown in from Texas. They pumped water into the tank to repressurize it as the propane slowly burned. More than 100 firefighters from agencies around the region were positioned a mile away, ready to roll in case the tank car exploded. It took 40 hours for the fire to burn out. Fire officials said they felt lucky.
Crews at a train derailment fire scene may try to pull unexploded tank cars that haven’t derailed away from the fire, or pour water on them to keep them from rupturing. But if firefighters hear a pinging sound from a tanker, or if they notice a tanker starting to discolor, the federal emergency guidebook they carry in their trucks tells them bluntly: “Withdraw immediately.”
Fire officials say they might not have enough foam stored locally to douse a major oil fire. They would put out the call across the north state, including to airports, for foam, West Sacramento Fire Chief Rick Martinez said. “Figure out a way to get that stuff here, in real time, get it here, anyway you can.”
Did Benicia downplay risk?
In Lac-Megantic, evacuated residents stood on the hills to watch the conflagration below. Reports say it took more than 12 hours to put down the fire. A year later, the town is rebuilding, but large swaths of downtown remain empty, the soil polluted by oil. News reports on the one-year anniversary included stories of survivors who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Canadian transportation officials will arrive next week to announce their findings on the incident. The mayor, meanwhile, is pushing for a railroad bypass.
A few weeks ago, on the one-year anniversary of the Canadian disaster, protesters hit the streets in Sacramento and cities across the continent, carrying photos of fireballs and posters saying “Stop the Bomb Trains!”
Railroad officials counter by saying the dangers of crude oil fires are limited, and that they have been working for years to make rail transport safer. According to the Association of American Railroads, 99.9977 percent of the hundreds of hazardous-material rail shipments daily arrive at their destination without mishap. Several rail experts noted the Lac-Megantic event is something unlikely to be replicated: The train was parked on a hill over town. It had suffered a minor fire earlier in the night that might have damaged the brakes. No one was on the train when it started to roll.
The author of “Train Wreck: The Forensics of Rail Disasters,” a book about lethal train crashes, suggests people should worry more about the vehicle sitting in their driveway.
“Society understands and accepts the risk of driving a car, and that is far more hazardous than a train falling on you,” said George Bibel, a University of North Dakota professor.
Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn doesn’t think Sacramentans who live near the tracks should live in dread, but said he understands the unease. “People are right to be concerned and want to know what the facts are. We’d be foolhardy not to take it seriously.”
Benicia recently completed its analysis of the spill risk from two planned 50-car daily oil trains between Roseville and Benicia, and came up with a controversial conclusion. It determined that an oil spill could be expected to happen once ever 111 years. Based on that analysis, Benicia concluded the project does not pose a significant hazard in cities along the rail line.
The report’s author, Christopher Barkan of the University of Illinois, an expert on hazardous rail transport, formerly worked for the railroads’ national advocacy group and does research supported by the organization. He said his analysis was not affected by that affiliation. He declined further comment.
Steve Hampton, an economist with the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response, said the Benicia report gives a false air of certainty about something that has far too many unknowns. “This is so new, anyone who says they know exactly what the rate is, they don’t.”
He noted the analysis failed to look at risks the project poses on the rail route east of Roseville, where trains will pass through areas designated by the state as “high-hazard” for derailments.
Jeff Mount, a natural resource management expert at Public Policy Institute of California, said a one-in-111-year spill event for the Valero trains refers to long-range averages. It doesn’t preclude a spill from happening at any time. If several oil trains come through Sacramento, as expected, the spill risks increase, Mount said.
Safety costs vs. benefits
So how do local officials prepare? And how much do you spend to safeguard against an event with an arguably low likelihood of occurrence but potentially huge consequences?
Similar assessments already have been done of flood and earthquake risks. California requires urban levees to be sufficient to handle one-in-200-year storms, prompting billions of dollars in spending for construction and ongoing maintenance. Officials have spent tens of billions of dollars on seismic upgrades to bridges and overpasses in Northern California to guard against earthquakes like the 1989 Loma Prieta event, which has a 67 percent chance of recurrence in the next 30 years, according to federal estimates.
Risk experts say floods and earthquakes are considerably more likely to cause widespread damage than an oil spill and fire, even one as major as in Lac-Megantic. Bibel, the North Dakota professor, said risks can never be brought to zero. At some point, safety costs outweigh benefits.
On the federal level, transportation officials have proposed requiring railroad companies to replace the current fleet of tanker cars with sturdier versions that have more safety measures. The government also is proposing lower speed limits for trains carrying Bakken crude, and new safety technology on trains, such as more advanced operating systems. There is a push to force mining companies to install more sophisticated equipment at well heads to reduce the volatility of Bakken before it is placed into rail cars.
In California, spill-prevention officials have launched discussions with railroads, oil companies and emergency officials to determine what a “reasonable worst case spill” into a waterway might look like, and how to plan for it. As a starting point, those officials last month suggested a reasonable worst case could be 20 tank cars of crude oil spilling from one train.
Regional leaders in Sacramento have called on Benicia to redo its analysis of the risk posed by crude oil trains traveling to the Valero refinery, and to assess the impact of an explosive derailment.
But even within the region, views are mixed on how much risk management is appropriate. Yolo County Supervisor Duane Chamberlain runs a farm and uses diesel fuel daily. He said he cringes when government regulations drive up prices. “How much can you protect everybody and everything?” he asked. “We shouldn’t make it harder for oil companies to do business in our state.”
In the Feather River Canyon, where in recent years boulders have punctured and derailed trains, Plumas County Supervisor Kevin Goss said a derailment could be catastrophic for the river, which helps feed faucets in Sacramento. He said he has taken calls from worried residents and has gone out to see the milelong oil trains that have begun snaking along the mountainside.
“I couldn’t believe how many oil cars were on this one train,” he said.