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Concerns over oil train safety felt in First State

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Delaware Public Media
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The debate over the safety of shipping crude oil by rail is playing out across the country at both the state and federal levels.

Just last week, the Obama administration released a 203-page proposal detailing new safety standards for shipments of oil on trains -- the public now has 60 days to submit comments on the details of that proposal. The federal government will make a decision on finalized standards by October of next year.

In the meantime, the conversation is playing out at the local level in the First State. More than 100,000 barrels of crude oil are shipped by rail to the PBF Energy refinery in Delaware City every day, with more on the way.

Delaware Public Media’s Sean Carlson sat down those involved in the oil by rail debate in the state to examine the issue here.

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When representatives from PBF Energy held a community open house in February on expanding its rail operations, the public had some concerns - and were not shy about expressing them.

Another community meeting in March drew almost 200 people.

Some people are concerned about issues like noise or how much longer they might have to wait at rail crossings with more trains going by, but the most heated topic of discussion has been what’s been in the news for much of the last year: the safety of shipping crude oil by rail.

The issue, something many weren't even aware of until recently, became hard to ignore after the derailment of a train that spilled more than a million and a half gallons of oil in Lac-Magéntic, Quebec in July of last year. That derailment led to an explosion that killed 47 people and destroyed much of the town.

The train was carrying oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, which is more flammable than other types of crude.

The oil that’s refined in Delaware City is primarily from those fields and others in Canada. And if everything goes as planned, more is on the way.

A lot more, says Jose Dominguez, the manager of the Delaware City refinery.

"I would say we typically run 160-170 thousand barrels a day, and probably 120 or so is via rail right now. We are doing some projects to get that up to be able to receive 100 percent by rail here in an August or September timeframe," said Dominguez.

The refinery eventually expects to be receiving more than 200,000 barrels of oil a day.

The increase in shipments to Delaware City reflects the dramatic expansion of both domestic and Canadian oil production in recent years, and the best and most cost effective way to get it to Delaware is by train. Dominguez says that eventually, all of the oil arriving at the Delaware City refinery will shift from the sea to rail.

He says those rail shipments are what keeps the refinery in business and about a thousand people employed.

"This is a critical thing for this refinery. Without the rail crude, it would not be making money -- it would be losing money," said Dominguez.

Dominguez also cites the recent and temporary shutdowns of the Delaware City refinery and others on the East Coast as examples of the turbulent economics of the crude oil industry.

So if on one side some residents and advocates are saying trains carrying thousands of gallons of crude oil a day are a threat to public safety, and on the other those refining and shipping the oil highlight the economic benefits of shipping more if it - can there be a solution?

In Sally Milbury-Steen’s backyard in Newark, you can hear the many oil tankers that pass clearly as the roll by just a stone’s throw away from her flower garden. Some of them are more than a mile long.

"A lot of the trains pass at night. When you live as close to the tracks as we do, you kind of get used to it," said Milbury-Steen. "It doesn’t disrupt your sleep."

Milbury-Steen, a retired non-profit director, says the number of trains has definitely increased over the 28 years she’s lived here. She’s tried to keep a log of when they go by, but says there hasn’t exactly been a pattern.

There’s a reason why those concerned about the oil shipments don’t know when the trains go by. Norfolk Southern Railway, which operates all the trains going to the Delaware City refinery, doesn’t release information regarding the timetables or routes of its freight trains to the public due to security and competition concerns.

What the company does say is that 35 Norfolk Southern trains pass through the First State everyday, though not all of them are filled with oil. The company ships all manner of freight.

Still, Norfolk Southern says it has taken steps to improve safety, including more track inspections and having trains slow down as they move through populated areas.

My father works for Norfolk Southern, he’s an assistant track supervisor. I’ve got an uncle who operates trains in northern Indiana," said Norfolk Southern’s spokesman Dave Pidgeon. "We live in the same towns, we drive the same roads, we create in the same parks and in the same woods and in the same streams. So safety is not only a statistic for us, it’s personal."

Pigeon adds that accidents involving oil by rail are incredibly rare, saying that only .02 percent of all hazardous material moving on the United States rail network fails to make it to its destination because of an accident.

Despite the railway’s efforts to improve the safety of shipping oil by rail, the federal Department of Transportation ordered earlier this summer that in light of safety concerns, companies transporting large quantities of oil have to report the details of those shipments to the states they travel through.

Those details aren’t publicly available though, at least not in the First State. Delaware’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Norfolk Southern that keeps that information in the hands of emergency responders.

Delaware isn’t the only state to keep the details of the train shipments within emergency management agencies, but some, including New York, Montana and California have already disclosed the information to the public. Just last week, Norfolk Southern sued the state of Maryland in an attempt to stop it from releasing details of train shipments to news organizations.

Milbury-Steen, who actually has been attending emergency preparedness sessions put on by the Delaware Emergency Management Agency, says her and her neighbors would still benefit from knowing when or even where the trains go.

"In my mind, this is not an antagonism. This is an opportunity for us to do things better, and to make things safer," said Milbury-Steen.

Another concern raised both in Delaware and elsewhere around the country is what the oil is shipped in.

Most oil by rail in the U.S. is transported in what are known as DOT-111 rail cars. They’ve served as workhorses of rail freight for decades.

But they weren’t designed to carry oil, and certainly not the more flammable crude shipped from the Bakken fields. The Lac-Magéntic spill and explosion, and many others, involved DOT-111 cars.

The Delaware City refinery, which owns or leases the rail cars used to ship the oil to it, has used and continues to use DOT-111s. In fact, the refinery recently spent $250 million on buying 3,000 more of the rail cars.

What is different, though, is that the new DOT-111s are a newer model with a number of safety upgrades designed to make them safer; most notably thicker hulls to reduce the possibility of rupturing, spilling and catching fire.

As of June of this year, all rail cars delivering oil to the Delaware City refinery have those upgrades.

Refinery manager Jose Dominguez says the refinery has also invested millions of dollars in taking other precautions including infrastructural improvements and track repairs, as well adding new railroad crossings and monitoring others to ease traffic in the community.

"We’ve done a lot of great things here in the last few years to make it a very safe operation, we take that with a lot of pride." said Dominguez. "Last year was the best year in the history of this refinery in terms of safety and we want to keep that performance going."

Still, the upgraded DOT-111 tank cars don’t exactly have a ringing endorsement from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB in the past deemed the old DOT-111s unsuitable for carrying crude coil. It also points out that an oil train that derailed and spilled thousands of gallons of crude into the James River in Lynchburg, Virginia last year had the new upgrades.

In responding to this story, a spokesman for the NTSB said that in light of the Lynchburg accident and others in Canada since the Lac-Magéntic explosion, the new tanker car upgrade “does not appear to be the answer.”

In any event, new federally proposed safety standards for oil by shipments would phase out the use of the older DOT-111 cars (just the old ones? or the updgraded old ones as well?) across the country, including Delaware.

And in response to those in First State who remain worried - the Delaware Emergency Management Agency provides workshops on what to do in the event of a disaster --- while representatives from the Delaware City refinery say their doors are always open to listen to the concerns of the community.