Northern California congressional representatives this week called for more action by the U.S. Department of Transportation to increase the safety of crude oil shipments by rail.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and three House colleagues called for the department to:
* Speed rules on phasing out old tanker cars, in favor of new, stronger models, and the implementation of technology designed to monitor train movements and automatically stop or slow a train before accidents can occur;
* Require the removal of flammable natural gas liquids from crude from the Bakken region of North Dakota before it’s loaded into rail cars; and
* Report on the industry compliance with an emergency order that shipment information be shared with local emergency officials.
The Valero Benicia refinery has plans to bring in 70,000 barrels of crude per day on trains that would rumble through downtown Davis. It’s a project to which the Davis City Council and others are opposed until safety concerns have been addressed, but only federal officials are empowered to regulate rail traffic.
A call for stricter rules has followed a series of accidents, including the 2013 explosion of an oil train that leveled the city of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and killed 47 people.
In a letter to Secretary Anthony Foxx, the representatives praised the “steady progress” on crude oil safety while urging accountability, comprehensive oversight and stringent standards.
“We are especially concerned with the high risks involved with transporting lighter, more flammable crude in densely populated areas,” the representatives wrote. “Should spills or explosions occur, as we have seen over the last year, the consequences could be disastrous, costing lives, damaging property, and harming the environment.”
Reps. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento; Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena; and George Miller, D-Martinez; co-wrote the letter with Garamendi.
The industry would need to construct small processing towers to remove natural gas liquids from the crude. The towers, known as stabilizers, are common in some parts of the country, according to the letter.
“Because your agency has explicitly stated that all options are on table, we believe that requiring the petroleum industry to make lighter crude shipments by rail less volatile must be a part of the solution,” the representatives wrote.
“And, although building infrastructure will require time and investment, industry experts have also publicly stated that stripping (natural gas liquids) from lighter crude is a part of the equation for addressing railcar safety.”
Positive Train Control technology should be prioritized, they wrote, in order to prevent collisions and derailments caused by excessive speed. Congress has mandated that it be put in place by the end of 2015.
New tank cars built to minimize the impact of an explosion should replace 1960s-era DOT-111 tank cars for hauling crude, the representatives wrote.
“The upgrading on the tank cars is a very important requirement,” said Garamendi, a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, in an interview on Wednesday. “I’ve talked to Secretary Foxx about this three times now with my colleagues, and he is moving quickly to institute regulations that would require tank cars that are hauling Bakken oil to be of the highest standard. That is not the case now, but regulations should be in place in the next three to six months.”
A recently released draft of the environmental impact report for the Valero Benicia refinery project concluded that the chances of a spill of 100 barrels or more along the Roseville-Benicia line is extremely unlikely — a 0.009 chance for all trains — and that precautions have been taken to reduce the risk. Valero Benicia has said it will only use newer, sturdier tank models known as CPC-1232.
Garamendi said the concern he’s heard about the oil trains has been “limited — a little bit from the community, but mostly it’s been from public officials.”
“I have communities (in the 3rd District) through which the line goes: Davis, Dixon, Fairfield, Suisun, Marysville, and they’re at risk,” Garamendi said. “They were at risk before the Bakken oil, they are now and they will continue to be, probably, for many, many years as a result of the increased oil traffic on trains.
“It’s an ongoing concern, but it’s one that can be dealt with.”
— Reach Cory Golden at [email protected] or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden