Facing growing apprehension among Californians, railroads and oil companies are trying to allay fears over the dangers of hauling crude oil into the state.
Tensions have been heightened by a spate of derailments, as well as a recently unearthed government report with some sobering projections for the potential cost to life and property from such incidents in coming years. Federal regulators are weighing stricter rules governing everything from modernized braking systems to new speed limits.
In a rare move Tuesday in Sacramento, officials with California’s two major railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF, held a media briefing explaining safety measures ranging from computerized stability controls to special foam for choking out fires.
At the California State Railroad Museum, Pat Brady, a hazardous materials manager for BNSF, showed off a newer model tank car with half-inch thick “head shields” – metal plates extending halfway up on either end. The car was also equipped with “skid protection,” Brady said, pointing to a nozzle underneath that’s designed to break away in a derailment, leaving the valve itself intact, to avert spills.
This tank car, the CPC-1232, is supposed to be safer and harder to puncture than the older DOT-111 version, but it’s facing skepticism after several exploded last week when a train hauling North Dakota crude through West Virginia derailed.
Industry officials at the Sacramento briefing were reluctant to comment about that incident, saying not all the facts are in yet, but several emphasized the importance of keeping trains from derailing to begin with, and claiming that more than 99.99 percent of such shipments arrive safely.
Both BNSF and Union Pacific said tracks used to haul crude through California undergo daily visual inspections, said Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt, as well as a battery of high-tech tests.
“We’re using lasers to measure track gauge and track profile to keep trains on tracks,” he said, and also “pushing ultrasonic waves into our rail to detect potential cracks early.”
Hunt says in a typical month, Union Pacific brings in 1,000 to 1,200 cars loaded with oil, a tiny fraction of the company’s in-state freight. BNSF said its oil haul is even less: about two trains a month. But some predict such shipments could soar in the near future.
Also represented at the briefing was Valero Energy, which is hoping to start bringing two fifty-car oil trains a day to its refinery in Benicia.
“Valero as a company has acquired over five thousand rail cars," said Chris Howe, a health and safety manager at Valero's Benicia facility. "We’re able to get a number of them committed to our project, so we will likely be using Valero cars of these newer designs.”
The industry’s shift away from the DOT-111 model is “a useful step,” says Patti Goldman, managing attorney with Earthjustice, who adds that the newer cars are still “not nearly safe enough."
"What you need to do to prevent catastrophes when trains do leave the tracks is have far better tank cars to be able to prevent the leaks and explosions in the first place,” says Goldman.
Earthjustice is in a legal fight pushing for stronger oversight and regulation. Goldman charges that it’s taking a long time to fully phase out older models because the industry is more focused on growing fleets rapidly.
“That’s just inexcusable," she says. "We don’t think they’re allowed to do that. We think they need to get these hazardous tank cars off the rails before they start increasing the amount of crude oil that’s going to be shipped on the rails.”