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By Solarina Ho
TORONTO (Reuters) – Mile-long trains carrying crude oil will likely keep chugging through North American cities even after a string of fiery disasters spurred safety officials to urge that railways send risky cargo along less populated routes.
Re-routing the crude-by-rail trains that support booming North American oil production would be hugely difficult given the location of major rail lines and lack of alternatives, industry watchers say, adding that skirting major centers carries different types of risks.
“In the U.S., rail built the West. Literally. The railroad came first, and then towns sprung up along the route. And so as a consequence, rail transit’s the heart of many of our cities and towns,” said Brigham McCown, a former chief counsel at the U.S. Department of Transportation and former head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).
“It’s called the main line for a reason,” he added.
The dangers of sending crude by rail due to increasingly clogged pipelines were highlighted last July, when an unmanned, runaway train carrying crude crashed into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, leveling the heart of the small lakeside community and killing 47 people.
Last week, the U.S. and Canadian transportation safety boards, which can only suggest and not impose new rules, recommended more rigorous route planning for shipping crude and other flammable liquids.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which urged that such shipments avoid populated areas, wants crude oil be added to a list of hazardous materials that already requires tougher routing protocols.
“We’re not asking for new rails to be built, we’re not asking for major modifications,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt told Reuters.
The thrust of the proposals is risk mitigation, not complete elimination, said Jason Kuehn, vice president for rail practice at management consulting firm Oliver Wyman, which makes route planning software used by Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd and CSX Corp.
Kuehn said existing routing regulations in the United States, which govern products such as anhydrous ammonia and chlorine gas, which are even more dangerous than crude oil, have been effective.
FEW ALTERNATIVES IN THE BAKKEN REGION
The Bakken oil fields of North Dakota pump out a type of crude that is more explosive and flammable than some others. It was involved at Lac-Megantic and in other major crashes last year.
But for Bakken oil headed to refineries in the east, alternative train routes are limited.
The most direct route eastward for Canadian Pacific and BNSF Railway Co, the two main railroads running through the Bakken region, is through Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, then Chicago.
“Getting oil from North Dakota to the refineries around Philly without going through Chicago, for one, is enormously difficult,” said Trains magazine writer Fred Frailey, who has followed the industry for more than three decades.
An alternative route for CP Rail, Canada’s second largest railroad, would require going north to Winnipeg, Manitoba, across Northern Ontario, southeast to Toronto and likely to Montreal before heading south to the United States. It’s a route that would swap Chicago for three of Canada’s largest cities.
CSX, which expects to ramp up U.S. crude shipments by 50 percent this year, mostly to East Coast refineries, said it already complies with federal routing guidelines for shipping the most hazardous materials.
“We will evaluate whether those protocols could be applied to oil shipments,” spokeswoman Melanie Cost said in an email.
“However, re-routing requires careful thought and analysis to make sure that hazardous materials operate over tracks that incorporate the most safety features, and that additional miles that may involve other risks are not added to shipments.”
Doniele Carlson, spokeswoman for Kansas City Southern, the smallest of U.S. Class I railroads, noted its network’s size limits routing options.
Some companies have rail lines that bypass city centers, traveling through the outskirts, but those tracks may not necessarily be equipped to handle a high-capacity load or trains traveling at higher speeds, industry experts said.
A crash in a less populated area might wreak less havoc, but emergency responders could take longer to reach a more remote site and may be less equipped to deal with it, they said.
Taking a circuitous route, or traveling on secondary tracks, will also mean a shipment of crude spends more time traveling longer distances, using more fuel, producing higher emissions, and costing more to ship.
“If you’re doubling the length that it takes to get from point A to B, you are potentially doubling the risk for an accident,” said transportation safety expert McCown.
The American Railroad Association and the Railway Association of Canada have said they support the recommendations to improve rail safety, but they declined to comment specifically about route planning. They point to an improving safety record.
The rate of main-track accidents has declined over the past 10 years in Canada and the United States, according to the most recent government data. In Canada, accidents fell 33 percent to 1.6 per million main-track train-miles in 2012, from 2.4 in 2011. In the United States, the main line accident rate fell some 20 percent to 0.8 in 2012, from 1.0 in 2011.
Canada had 2.6 accidents per million main-track train-miles in 2003. The United States had 1.5 in 2003.
But shipping companies are just as involved as the railways in deciding what cargoes are moved and how, and under government-mandated common carrier regulations, North American railroads are legally required to transport products they might otherwise choose to avoid.
“They’ve taken on an inordinate amount of the risk. Even though it’s not their car, and it’s not their product, and it might not have been loaded by them,” said Tony Hatch, independent transportation analyst at ABH Consulting.
“They don’t want to be on the front page of the paper unless it’s for opening a new terminal or cutting a ribbon.”
(Additional reporting by Kristen Hays in Houston; Editing by Jeffrey
Activist Post: West Virginia Health Officials Refuse to Accept Experts Findings on Elk River Contamination
Even though the water in West Virginia has been declared safe, hospital admissions related to the spill have increased.
What has transpired is that the Center for Disease Control has set safety standards for pure MCHM (4-methylcyclohexaneemethol), but the stuff polluting the Elk River was far from pure. Containing a mix of up to seven chemicals, the crude MCHM that was discharged into the Elk River was something else entirely, and the CDC safety standards set for MCHM don’t cover it when mixed with other chemicals, what is referred to as crude MCHM.
Investigators still don’t know the full composition of the 10,000 gallon discharge into the Elk River. Freedom Industries, the company responsible with maintaining the storage tanks, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and, although hit with numerous law suits regarding the spill, they have been slow to provide information on the toxic cocktail that entered the river.
“I can guarantee that citizens in this valley are, at least in some instances, breathing formaldehyde. They’re taking a hot shower. This stuff is breaking down into formaldehyde in the shower or in the water system, and they’re inhaling it.”
“It’s frightening, it really is frightening,” the Charleston Gazette quoted Simonton telling state lawmakers. ”What we know scares us, and we know there’s a lot more we don’t know.”
“We know that (crude MCHM) turns into other things, and these other things are bad,”.”And we haven’t been looking for those other things. So we can’t say the water is safe yet. We just absolutely cannot.”
Now that officials know other chemicals were present, they can start the process of hunting them down. The fear is that even though the all clear was given regarding the levels of pure MCHM, other chemicals, either singularly or in combination, could well be lurking in domestic pipes and tanks, and that those chemicals could break down into yet more harmful components.
For this reason residents have been told to flush their domestic systems to remove any lurking toxins, but even the best way to do that is open to dispute with experts disagreeing on the best method to use.
Andrew Welton, an environmental engineer from the University of South Alabama, went to West Virginia after the leak. He has been assisting residents to purge their systems, but using different guidelines to those used in West Virginia. For example, he recommends that residents should open windows and doors before starting the process and should use fans to remove fumes from homes. West Virginia officials say this is un-necessary.
Speaking to The West Virginia Gazette he said:
“I can’t believe they aren’t doing this. These issues aren’t being addressed. The long-term consequences of this spill are not being addressed.”
In another twist The commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health, Dr Letitia Tierney DISMISSED Simontons statement and said that the formaldehyde detected was unrelated to the chemical spill.
“Formaldehyde is naturally produced in very small amounts in our bodies as part of our normal, everyday metabolism and causes no harm,” Tierney’s statement said. “It can also be found in the air that we breathe at home and at work, in the food we eat, and in some products that we put on our skin.”
“Your level of what risk you will accept is up to you,” Simonton said. “I can only tell you what mine is, and I’m not drinking the water. (source)
While the arguing over who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s interesting to note that West Virginia officials are blaming the winter for some of the hospital admissions. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s office pointed to many reasons why hospital admissions are rising, namely the inability of a large number of people to wash their hands, which is an odd thing to say if they believe the water is safe to use. Or maybe they have washed their hands, and that’s why they are sick.
“We’re in the middle of flu and virus season,” Dr. Letitia Tierney of the state Bureau of Public Health said in the statement. “While the [hand] sanitizer is good for cleaning, it isn’t great for eliminating a virus. Some people are getting these viruses, as many people do every winter. In addition, a lot of people are getting very anxious. Anxiety is a real diagnosis, and it can be really hard on people and it’s OK to be seen by a health professional to ensure you’re OK.”
West Virginia health officials are playing around with the well-being of 300,000 people. It would be good if they could cut the crap and sort this situation out before someone dies.
Chris Carrington is a writer, researcher and lecturer with a background in science, technology and environmental studies. Chris is an editor for The Daily Sheeple. Wake the flock up!