US Govt Data Sharpens Focus on Crude-Oil Train Routes

A ProPublica analysis of federal government data adds new details to what is known about the routes taken by trains carrying crude oil. Local governments are often unaware of the potential dangers they face


The oil boom underway in North Dakota has delivered jobs to local economies and helped bring the United States to the brink of being a net energy exporter for the first time in generations.

But moving that oil to the few refineries with the capacity to process it is presenting a new danger to towns and cities nationwide — a danger many appear only dimly aware of and are ill-equipped to handle.

Much of North Dakota's oil is being transported by rail, rather than through pipelines, which are the safest way to move crude. Tank carloads of crude are up 50 percent this year from last. Using rail networks has saved the oil and gas industry the time and capital it takes to build new pipelines, but the trade-off is greater risk: Researchers estimates that trains are three and a half times as likely as pipelines to suffer safety lapses.

Indeed, since 2012, when petroleum crude oil first began moving by rail in large quantities, there have been eight major accidents involving trains carrying crude in North America. In the worst of these incidents, in July, 2013, a train derailed at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec and exploded, killing 47 and burning down a quarter of the town.


Six months later, another crude-bearing train derailed and exploded in Casselton, North Dakota, prompting the evacuation of most of the town's 2,300 residents.

See our interactive map of the crude-oil train data.

In those and other cases, local emergency responders were overwhelmed by the conflagrations resulting from these accidents. Residents often had no idea that such a dangerous cargo, and in such volume, was being transported through their towns.

Out of the disasters came a scramble for information. News outlets around the country began reporting the history of problems associated with the DOT-111 railroad tank cars carrying virtually all of the crude.

Local officials, environmental groups, and concerned citizens began to ask what routes these trains were taking and whether the towns in their paths were ready should an accident occur.

In July, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation ordered railroads to disclose route information to state emergency management officials. Railroads had fought hard to keep this information private, citing security concerns. Even after federal regulators required more disclosure, railroads pressured many state governments to withhold their reports from the public. Some have come out, often as a result of public records requests by news organizations: The Associated Press has obtained disclosures in several states initially unwilling to release them.



Still, those disclosures offer scant detail, often consisting of little more than a list of counties through which crude oil is passing, without further specifics.

There have been attempts to fill in the blanks. KQED in Northern California, for example, combined the information disclosed in federal route reports with maps of the major railroads to show where trains carrying crude passed through California. The environmental group Oil Change International superimposed major refineries and other facilities that handle crude oil onto a national railroad map.

A ProPublica analysis of data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration adds new details by plotting out where trains carrying crude have experienced safety incidents, most of them minor. The data shows such incidents in more than 250 municipalities over the last four years. We've used the data to create an interactive map showing where safety incidents on trains were reported, where each train began its journey, and where it was ultimately headed.

The data also shows that factors that contributed to major, or even catastrophic, accidents have also been present in hundreds of minor ones: outdated tank car models; component failures; and missing, damaged and loose parts.

Bit by bit, a more realistic notion of where the dangers of crude-bearing trains are most substantial is emerging.

"Frankly, the [previous] disclosures weren't of that much use," says Kelly Huston, a spokesman for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, one of the first state agencies to make those disclosures available for anyone on its website. When it comes to a detailed picture of where crude is moving, Huston says, "The expectation of the public is very far from the reality of what we're actually getting."

The hazardous materials data reviewed by ProPublica adds to that picture.

Only a handful of places around the country have the refinery capacity and infrastructure necessary to handle the massive amounts of oil being extracted from North Dakota's Bakken Shale: Bakersfield, Carson, and Long Beach in California; St. James, Lake Charles, Lacassine in coastal Louisiana; Philadelphia, Paulsboro, New Jersey. Delaware City, Delaware in the Mid-Atlantic.

These cities have become the terminuses for "unit trains" carrying up to 100 tank cars, each containing as much as 30,000 gallons of crude oil. These endpoints also have shaped the paths along which crude-bearing trains now cross hundreds of communities, many of which have never seen such traffic. Tracks all but abandoned for years have sprung back to life on account of the oil boom.

The vulnerabilities of the DOT-111 tank cars in which much of the oil is moved are well known by now. For decades, federal officials have cited concerns over their relatively thin shells, which are prone to puncturing or rupturing in an accident and releasing the hazardous material inside. They also have other components prone to damage, including protruding fittings often left unprotected, and hinged lids held on by bolts that have a history of coming loose, especially if not properly tightened by the original shipper.

When a tank car full of oil ruptures, the consequences can be dire. At a panel held by the National Transportation Safety Board in April, one technical expert with the agency described a "fireball release," in which "the entire content of the tank car, up to 30,000 gallons, is instantly released, along with the potential for rocketing car parts." When one tank car ignites, the heat can set off a chain reaction, causing other cars to explode as well.

In most cases, the tanks cars used to transport crude are supplied by railroad shipping companies, not railroads themselves. Railroads have typically pushed for more stringent safety requirements since they have to move the cars. Shipping companies and oil producers have pushed back against stricter proposals.

In 2011, as the crude-by-rail industry was ramping up and federal regulators were preparing to introduce new rules, industry groups adopted voluntary safety modifications to add thicker shells and other protections to new tank cars. But roughly 85 percent of the fleet currently carrying flammable liquids still consists of the older models.


And while PHMSA is expected to issue rules requiring safer tank cars, railroads will have years to phase in the upgrades and it's not yet clear to what extent they will be required to retrofit existing cars.

For most local fire departments, a blaze involving even a single tank car, let alone many, would be too much to handle, emergency response officials acknowledge.

"[Most] fire departments don't have the capacity to deal with more than a standard gasoline tank [fire], which is about 9,000 or 10,000 gallons of fuel," said Richard Edinger, vice chairman of the International Association of Fire Chief's hazardous materials committee. "Well, one DOT-111 car holds about 30,000 gallons — that pretty much exceeds our capacity."

Complicating matters, many towns don't even know that trains carrying crude oil are passing through.

Along the journey south from North Dakota, for example, many trains now make a stop in the tiny town of El Dorado, Arkansas, population 18,500, bound for a refinery that recently added capacity to accommodate Bakken crude. The PHMSA hazmat data includes more than a dozen leaks found on trains headed for the town.

Yet Union County Emergency Management Services deputy director Bobby Braswell, a former Chief Deputy for the El Dorado Fire Department, was unaware of the new crude traffic and its potential risks.

"We've got a little old railroad here, but if they transport crude, I don't know," said Braswell in an interview. If state emergency management officials have a plan to respond to oil train derailments, they haven't shared it with El Dorado yet: "I don't remember anybody calling about crude," Braswell said.

Along the trains' route to the Mid-Atlantic, according to PHMSA's hazmat data, is Mineral City, Ohio, where Tuscarawas county emergency services director Patty Levengood said she didn't know whether fire departments in her jurisdiction had been trained or otherwise advised on the new oil traffic. Such planning was "pretty much left to the individual chiefs," she said.

Other responders said they are acutely aware of the new risks facing their towns, and some expressed alarm. Asked whether his fire department had the capacity to handle a single tank car fire, Duane Hart, fire chief for Juniata County, Pennsylvania, answered with an emphatic "I know we don't!" Crude trains now pass through Port Royal, a town of 925 in Juniata County for which Hart's department provides services.

In many circumstances, all local responders would be able to do in the event of a large tank car fire is simply let it burn, experts say. At the recent NTSB rail safety panel, Gregory Noll, a chairperson for the hazardous materials committee of the National Fire Protection Association, summarized the situation bluntly.

"There's very little that we as a responder are going to do," he said, "other than... to isolate the area, remove people from the problem, and allow the incident to go its natural course until it essentially burns down to a level where we can extinguish it."

But that approach would still involve tremendous damage in the many densely populated areas through which crude is now moving by rail, officials acknowledge.

"The standard evacuation is typically a half-mile," said Jeff Simpson, a 30-year firefighter who lives in North Virginia and teaches a course called "Training for Railroad Emergencies."

"But if you're in the middle of a big city, the footprint is going to be much bigger."

The Pittsburgh-based nonprofit news organization PublicSource reported in August that up to 40 percent of that city's roughly 300,000 residents live within the potential evacuation zone of trains carrying crude through the city.

Another Pennsylvania metropolis, Philadelphia, has become one of the biggest destinations in the U.S. for Bakken crude thanks to newly retrofitted refineries and a brand new rail unloading facility opened just two years ago.

The city appears frequently in hazmat reports: In at least 65 cases over the last two years, tank cars bound for or arriving in Philadelphia were found to have loose, leaking or missing safety components. These parts are meant to prevent flammable contents from escaping in the event of an accident.

There was a more serious incident last January, when a train full of oil derailed a few miles from the city's downtown. Luckily, no one was injured. The train was soon righted and the railroad made repairs, assuring city officials that the danger had passed.

But even after the derailment, Philadelphia "has not issued new plans, directives, or protocols in response to the increase of crude oil shipments," wrote city director of Emergency Management Samantha Phillips in an email to ProPublica.

The Philadelphia County Local Emergency Planning Committee "has not been active on the transportation of Bakken crude oil," Phillips added.

The agency's website contains no emergency information specific to a fire involving crude oil, or any other hazardous substance, other than a video featuring " Wally Wise-Guy, the Shelter in Place Turtle."

The video advises that "in the event of a hazardous materials emergency ... do what Wally Wise Guy does — go inside."



Defenceless during flight delays?

Flight delays and cancellations are happening with increasing frequency these days and those planning long trips with connecting flights suffer big losses. If you plan to fight it out with your airline, then you need to take a close look at the one-sided terms printed on your ticket


The Kingfisher syndrome is affecting Indian aviation again. Long delays and sudden flight cancellations have inflicted big losses in terms of time, money and opportunity on several air travellers. The Times of India reports that a massive 62,011 passengers suffered flight delays beyond two hours according to data from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). Of these 50,773 were Air India passengers alone. Can you fight for your rights when the DGCA blandly puts out such astonishing data? If you do, then it is important to remember that the battle is not going to be easy. Even before you think of demanding compensation for losses, hardship suffered and mental agony — you will have to fight a battle against one-sided and unfair terms of the ticket.

In fact, consider how unfair the terms of engagement are. All airlines will ask you to turn up two hours before departure, even for a one-hour flight and threaten you with a gate closure 45 minutes before departure, even when you have a boarding pass. However, when it comes to the timeliness and service delivery of airlines, it is a different ball game altogether. Most often, airlines will inform passengers about the flight changes only in the last minute. Passengers are being informed about cancelled flights or change in timing through an SMS or email. But did you know that the fine print allows airlines to change their flight timings by up to three hours and there is nothing the passenger can do.

Most people understand a “change in timings” to mean a delay — in fact, in winters, long flight delays are a regular phenomenon due to fog conditions affecting visibility and flight take-off  in north India. But do you know that airlines are also known to advance flight timings by as much as three hours?  Read what happened to Moneylife reader Sanjay Sinvahal in his own words.

“My IndiGo flight for January 2015 has been rescheduled. When I called IndiGo to find put the options for refund or change to an alternate flight, I was told to read the fine print. The fine print shows that airlines can change their schedule by up to three hours with no recourse to the passenger. My SpiceJet flight (Mum-Del) also got advanced to 07.30am from 09.30am. As a passenger, I have no option but to reach my destination two hours before the flight and wait for my connection. Is this fair? Is this not a one sided rules?”

Intense discounts and bottom-low prices for advance booking by customers is the best marketing strategy used by airline industry. However, does it guarantee the best customer service and punctuality? No. In fact, overbooked flights with considerable delay have become a norm. Customer satisfaction and value for money has taken a backseat in the Indian aviation industry lately. Passengers like Mr Sinhval have a case for fighting one-sided contracts; there are plenty of judgements that have struck down such contracts. Unfortunately, the legal process is expensive, consumer organisations have no funds to fight these endless battles and very few individuals have the heroic tenacity that is required to bring recalcitrant and unfair companies to book.

Here is what the rules say —the revised, 2010 rules of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DCGA) and applicability of Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) under Section 3, say that airlines should provide facilities to passengers affected by cancellation or delay in flights for more than three hours. It states, “Airlines are supposed to provide compensation and other benefits to passengers, including food and beverages, in case of delays. The airlines will not be under any obligation in case the delay is on account of things that are beyond its control like political unrest, bad weather, air traffic problems, or technical problem.”

However, the same rule is being mis-used by carriers for escaping from providing any facilities. The rules and exceptions are increasingly being (mis) used as escape points by the carriers leaving customers vulnerable. For example, most airlines avoid paying any compensation by declaring that delays are a result of technical issues.
Though there is an aviation regulator to look into air passenger’s grievances, unfortunately, the DCGA appears to be more concerned with safety related issues than resolving grievances. It is high time that an ombudsman is set up to help protect and safeguard air passenger’s interests and rights as consumers.



Rangarao Ds

2 years ago

It's a shame that the past governments including certain ministers have colluded with some of the lecherous airlines in defrauding the country and gone scot-free. Time to call a halt to any more of that by putting in place worthwhile mechanism for on the spot redress/compensation as suggested in the article.

Suketu Shah

2 years ago

The fact that current respected CM also suffered flight delays proves how much damage Congress has done in every sector in 60 yrs time.Let us give the current govt full 4.5 yrs more before judging them.

Nifty Sensex under pressure

If Nifty goes below today’s low, a short term decline would be on the cards


In Monday’s closing report, we had mentioned that NSE’s CNX Nifty will become weak only below 8,450. The Indian indices opened Tuesday in the red and continued to move lower gradually. Nifty went below 8,450 level and traded below it for almost an hour during the afternoon session. It then attempted to regain some ground. Today’s loss on the S&P BSE Sensex and Nifty has been the highest since 16 October 2014.

S&P BSE Sensex opened at 28,521 and went up 20 points to 28,541 while Nifty opened at 8,531 and hit a high at 8,535. This was followed by the indices moving lower steadily through the day to hit a low at 28,218 and 8,429. Sensex closed at 28,338 (down 161 points or 0.57%) while Nifty closed at 8,463 (down 67 points or 0.79%). Today’s loss on the NSE has been on a much higher volume of 125.89 crore shares. India VIX rose 3.90% to close at 13.5250.

Market regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), has imposed restrictions on issue of offshore derivative instruments or P-notes by foreign portfolio investors. This was the main reason for the knee-jerk reaction on the bourses today.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), in its response to the telecom department's request for clarification over pricing of various bands of spectrum said that auctions are not the only way to allot spectrum.

Coming back to stock markets, Finolex Cables (3.86%) was among the top three gainers in ‘A’ group on the BSE. The stock hit its 52-week high today. AIA Engineering (3.58%) also hit its 52-week high and was among the top four gainers in the group. AIA Engineering was recently in the news for its entering into a manufacturing agreement with Steelcast Ltd, Bhavnagar. According to the agreement, Steelcast will manufacture certain products for the company, which will improve market share of the company.

India Cements (8.67%) was among the top loser in ‘A’ group on the BSE. The stock was in news as there is uncertainty over the future of Chennai Super Kings - team owned by India Cements of which, suspended BCCI president N Srinivasan is the managing director. He is among 13 persons who were probed by a court-appointed inquiry committee investigating allegations of corruption in IPL 2013. Srinivasan has also been slammed by the Supreme Court for his conflict of interest.

State-run BHEL (2.95%) was the top gainer in the Sensex 30 pack. Citigroup upgraded the stock to "buy" from "sell" and raised the price target to Rs335.

ITC (4.99%) was the top loser in the Sensex 30 stock. The Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, has accepted the recommendation of an expert panel to ban the sale of loose cigarettes. The expert panel, set up by the Health Ministry has recommended, prohibition on sale of loose or single stick of cigarette, increasing the minimum legal age for sale of tobacco products, increasing the fine or penalty amounts for violation of certain provisions of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 2003 (COTPA), as well as making such offences cognizable. These recommendations will now be put before the Cabinet and will also require a Parliament nod before they are implemented.

On Monday, US indices closed in the green. Asian indices showed mixed performance. Shanghai Composite (1.37%) was the top gainer while NZSE 50 (0.53%) the top loser.


Minutes of the Bank of Japan's (BOJ) October 31 monetary policy meeting released showed BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda proposed the additional stimulus for the Japanese economy.

China's central bank reportedly cut the yield for a key short-term money rate today for the fourth time this year. Latest data showed Germany's gross domestic product rose 0.1% in Q3 September 2014. European indices were trading higher while US Futures were trading marginally higher.


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