Crude oil train safety in spotlight

Melissa Nann Burke and Jeff Montgomery, The News Journal

11:52 a.m. EDT March 10, 2014

Crude oil tank cars move along the Norfolk Southern rail line near I-95 on Feb. 11. (Photo: ROBERT CRAIG)

Crude oil tank cars move along the Norfolk Southern rail line near I-95 on Feb. 11.

Lawmakers have summoned first-responders and refinery and railroad reps to a community meeting Monday night in Delaware City to discuss emergency-response plans for the mile-long trains hauling volatile crude oil across Delaware each day.

Panelists hope to address locals’ concerns about the scale of risk to life and property following accidents involving exploding tank cars, including one in Quebec, Canada, in July that killed 47 and another in North Dakota that caused millions in damage in December.

Last month, 21 tank cars on a Norfolk Southern train – 19 carrying crude – derailed in western Pennsylvania, with four spilling oil.

“We’ve got to make sure it doesn’t happen here,” said state Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, who helped organize the gathering.

“At civic meetings, they’re talking about safety: What is actually in those cars? What would happen if there’s a derailment? Who would be notified, and who would be working together to contain it? I hope there will be a level of comfort, knowing what that plan is.”

Emergency managers and first-responders say they’re prepared, while training continues. A Norfolk Southern-sponsored countywide drill in August will involve a tank car.

Some community leaders worry that response procedures have yet to be refined, and specialized gear is stored too far away. Officials also say that first-responders aren’t notified when hazardous shipments move through the county.

“This is not going to go away. We want the refineries to be competitive, and this is the cheapest crude,” said Rep. Ed Osienski, who represents a portion of Newark.

“What I’m really worried about is whether the state and county and local emergency responders and [environmental officials] are sure they have what they need to be prepared and trained, and I don’t want the taxpayers to have to pay for it.”

Poll: Crude Oil Tank Cars

Emergency orders

Concerns about rail safety have spread beyond the communities bordering the Norfolk Southern tracks that serve the PBF Energy-owned refinery near Delaware City.

Tank cars bearing crude-oil hazard placards are regularly moving on CSX tracks through Wilmington and Newark. CSX does not serve Delaware City, but delivers crude to Philadelphia Energy Solutions at the former Sunoco refinery in southwest Philadelphia.

In February, federal officials announced emergency testing for crude moving by rail, saying the system had become an “imminent hazard” to public health and the environment.

Crude from the Bakken Shale deposits in North Dakota is more volatile than other oils, containing more combustible gases.

Both CSX and Norfolk Southern say they’re working with regulators as part of a voluntary agreement reached last month to increase track inspections, slow crude trains in major cities and develop increased training for emergency responders.

“Overall, the rail industry is a safe industry. We’re very proud of that record, but we’re constantly endeavoring to raise that bar,” Norfolk Southern spokesman Dave Pidgeon said.

Congressional and state oversight and reform studies of the crude-by-rail industry are underway. State Rep. John Kowalko has scheduled a House Energy Committee hearing for March 26 in Dover on the topic.

But the decks are stacked badly against the public as the number of crude trains increases, said Fred Millar, a hazardous-materials specialist who has testified before Congress on rail-cargo hazards.

“It’s not just the tracks that are not necessarily ready, it’s the whole railroad infrastructure and regulatory program,” said Millar, a member of the Local Emergency Planning Commission in Washington, D.C.

Millar noted that guidance from the American Association of Railroads in August recommended that railroad operators prohibit the public release of information about hazardous cargo shipments when sharing it with local emergency planning committees for their needs.

“The only people being kept in the dark about the risk are members of the public,” Millar said. “These are giant, 90-ton tank cars. They’re like elephants tip-toeing through the tulips. They have placards on their sides saying exactly what’s in them. But the fire services are not going to be willing to give information to the public, because they’re desperate for information for their plans.”

Wilmington Councilwoman Maria Cabrera was shocked that haulers are not required to notify state or local emergency managers about hazardous cargo shipments.

“At the moment, as a resident, I feel vulnerable,” she said. “Why shouldn’t we be informed about what’s being transported and when it’s being transported?”


Some fire professionals say crude-by-rail risks are high enough to warrant an industrial fire-fighting “mega-station” to serve the Mid-Atlantic, under a model similar to the cooperative spill-response complex maintained by Delaware River refineries.

Robert C. Andrews, chief executive officer of Bob Andrews Group, said his company would be headquartered in a central location, such as Delaware County, Pa., with the possibility of satellite sites to improve response times.

“We’re still evaluating locations,” Andrews said last week, noting Delaware City had been suggested. “The state of Delaware called us [last week] and tried to entice us to do that. We’re still in the search. I think we’ll widen out to more locations.”

Experts emphasize the importance of stockpiling equipment and regular inspection, testing and maintenance of supplies as crucial to readiness.

“If you look at some of the events that have happened recently, like the event that just happened in North Dakota, the fires there burned for several days,” Andrews said. “The basic model is, you need to have enough people and special training and equipment to deal with some of these things, and nobody should have to pay for it themselves.”

Scott Spencer, a rail-industry consultant, is urging lawmakers to require trains to carry emergency equipment such as oil booms, protective gear and fire-fighting foam concentrate on board.

“Response time is so critical to prevent the oil from moving off into adjacent waterways or to bring fire under control. This would effectively serve to protect communities along the entire route,” said Spencer, who lives in Wilmington.

Locally, officials might stage gear and resources at points along crude-oil routes for easier access, New Castle County Emergency Management Director Dave Carpenter said.

Supplies of foam concentrate are now kept at fire companies, the refinery and at Dover Air Force Base. An inventory is underway of what type of foam is stored where, and how much, Carpenter said. “We’re also developing guidelines for responders and a resource for them to use for training,” he said.

David H. Irwin Jr., chair of the New Castle County Local Emergency Response Committee, said the state has the capability to rush order additional foam from a supplier, if needed.

“The processes are in place,” he said. “Everyone is working together to ensure that we’re as prepared as we can be, and hopeful we will never have to put it to use.”

More shipments

Crude hauls to Delaware City average three trips in and three trips out each day, said Rep. Osienski, who’s been briefed by rail officials.

That frequency could jump to four trips a day by year’s end, according to company projections. PBF last week told investors that Delaware City can take in 145,000 barrels of crude by train a day. That’s expected to increase to 210,000 barrels a day – about 350 carloads – by the end of 2014.

PBF Executive President Thomas D. O’Malley has announced that all of Delaware City’s lighter crudes will arrive in cars equipped with the most-modern safety features by April 1 – with the same standards reached for all heavy crude deliveries by July.

“We’re doing everything we can by providing the safest rail cars available to deliver this crude, but if you don’t keep the trains on the tracks, it’s a really tough game,” he told an investor conference earlier this year.

The refinery recently agreed to fund safety upgrades at three highway crossings, including the installation of crossing gates at Del. 7 and 9, said Robert Perrine, railroad program manager for DelDOT.

“There’s been close calls recently at Route 9,” he said. “Cars are trying to zoom through before they get stuck waiting for the train to go through at 2 miles an hour.”

Just north of Wilmington, Rose Porter has noticed an uptick in the number of tank cars moving over the CSX tracks behind her home on Rockwood Road.

“It’s usually loud,” she said. “I really do hope they double check the safety, because if one of those cars comes off the track and falls, you’re looking at it going right into my family room. The houses are so close [to the tracks] here, it could be anyone or all of us.”

CSX would not confirm what’s inside the tank cars traversing its 23 miles of track in Delaware. Across its network, CSX handles about 14 trains with oil per week, according to the company. Executives expect the crude load to increase by 50 percent in 2014.

Michael Murray, a rail fan who’s followed the industry for 25 years, said CSX moves the crude east via Albany, N.Y., then south through New Jersey to Philadelphia-area refineries. Rather than running empty cars back the same way, CSX routes them through Delaware to Baltimore and back west, forming a loop, Murray said.

“The CSX line is a quarter of a mile from where I live in Elkton, and they’re running at least one empty [unit train] a day,” he said.

CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan said the railroad has not provided crude-oil-specific training to Delaware first-responders but is willing to do so.

“CSX has a long history of working with emergency responders across its system and makes information about the materials handled available to those agencies on request,” Sullivan said.

Contact Melissa Nann Burke at (302) 324-2329, or on Twitter @nannburke, or Jeff Montgomery at (302) 678-4277, or on Twitter @JMontgomery_TNJ.

Rail Safety Community Meeting

WHEN: 6 to 8:30 p.m. Monday

WHERE: Delaware City Fire Hall, 815 Fifth St. in Delaware City

WHO: Lawmakers, first-responders, officials from the Delaware Emergency Management Agency, the state Emergency Response Commission, DelDOT, DNREC, Norfolk Southern Corp. and PBF Refinery.

State House Energy Committee hearing on rail safety

WHEN: 4 to 6 p.m. March 26

WHERE: Legislative Hall, Dover

View the original article.