When it comes to rail traffic in Vermont, hazardous materials data is hard to get

As the death toll from the Lac Megantic rail disaster rises above 40, the question arises: Could such a tragedy occur in Vermont? And where?

At least 42 people were killed and eight others are missing and presumed dead in Lac Megantic after dozens of rail cars containing crude oil broke free from a parked engine and rolled into town, where they derailed and exploded.

Though hazardous materials are considered relevant to homeland security, the government doesn’t seem to be keeping close track of them. And officials in Vermont are largely in the dark as well.

Local and regional data is unavailable, even as train transport of petroleum products has reached an all-time high in recent years as pipeline infrastructure struggles to keep up with increasing North American oil production, according to Julia Wise of the Association of American Railroads.

Wise said in an email that in the first quarter of 2013, Class I railroads – the largest rail companies – transported a record 97,135 carloads of crude oil in the United States, more than 10 times the 9,500 carloads Class I railroads transported in all of 2008.

Ten railroad companies operate within Vermont, and some of them use leased track infrastructure owned by the state. The Vermont Rail System, which leases track from the state, moves about 24,000 carloads of freight annually, according to spokesman Selden Houghton.

Companies such as VRS can share general statistics about their freight, but spokespeople for multiple railways said they have been asked by the government not to share specific numbers relating to the transportation of hazardous materials, citing security concerns.

“Because of homeland security, I’m not able to issue that kind of information, and it has nothing to do with Lac Megantic,” said Lynne Labonte, spokeswoman for Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, the company responsible for the runaway train that exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec on July 6.

“That’s a blanket order since 9/11,” she said.

Recovery crews comb through the rubble of an explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec. The July 6 crash involving runaway train cars loaded with crude oil killed at least 50 people, officials say. Photo courtesy cbc.ca

Recovery crews comb through the rubble of an explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec. The July 6 crash involving runaway train cars loaded with crude oil killed at least 50 people, officials say. Photo courtesy cbc.ca

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulates rail companies. When asked if the administration is aware in real time of the movements of hazardous materials by train, Houghton said: “The FRA is the government body that regulates us, and we have very good communications with them.

“We have procedures in place with our dispatchers in case there would be an incident,” Houghton said. “Any reporting we do to anybody would be annual traffic.”

Wise said railroads only provide hazardous materials information to local and state governments.

“As far as hazardous materials are concerned, as you can imagine, this information is considered by the Transportation Security Administration to be security sensitive information and is carefully handled,” Wise said in an email. “Railroads only provide this information to local emergency planning committees to help them in assessing the hazardous materials moving through their communities and making sure the safeguards that are in place to protect against unintentional releases.”

Vermont, however, doesn’t seem to have much of this information.

Mark Bosma, public information officer for the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, referred questions to Chris Herrick, head of the Vermont Hazardous Materials Response Team and Dr. Bill Irwin, Vermont’s Radiological Health Chief.

“I don’t have specific numbers and quantities, and I’m not aware of anyone who’s collecting,” Herrick said.

Irwin said his office is notified any time there is a significant shipment of radioactive materials in the state and is authorized to perform inspections of radioactive cargo entering Vermont. This notification policy does not include slightly radioactive materials that are routinely transported to hospitals and research labs by courier services such as FedEx. Most radioactive materials moving through the state, he said, travel by road.

“The only shipments we’re aware of by train are by the Department of Defense,” Irwin said. “In particular, the U.S. Navy. They transport radioactive materials by rail, and their safety program is also one that is of tremendous rigor.”

Irwin said the same reporting standards don’t apply to hazardous materials that are not radioactive.

“Unfortunately, the same sort of robust nature that exists for radioactive materials is not something that we’re aware of for other hazardous materials from our office,” he said.

“We don’t know amounts [of hazardous materials traveling through the state,]” said Chris Cole, VTrans director of policy, planning and intermodal development. “That’s information that we’re not privy to. That comes to the railroad.”

In general, hazardous materials travel over Vermont’s railways unknown to the public and government officials.

“We don’t know amounts [of hazardous materials traveling through the state,]” said Chris Cole, VTrans director of policy, planning and intermodal development. “That’s information that we’re not privy to. That comes to the railroad.”

Cole said that just as the government isn’t aware of the amount and location of fuel trucks on its highways, it isn’t the government’s place to track hazardous materials transported by rail.

“It’s just not something that the government has a role in,” he said. “It’s private enterprise.”

Though the state has no role in day-to-day freight operations over its railroad lines, it collects up to 11 percent of revenue generated through use of the tracks, depending on the total income to the railroad. The lease agreements between the state and private railroad companies have no provisions specifically relating to the transport of hazardous materials, though they do require companies to follow all applicable laws and regulations related to freight transport.

Despite the state government’s hands-off approach to the transportation of hazardous materials, rail is a key component in moving fossil fuels into Vermont for distribution.

Tanker cars rest at a propane transfer station in Berlin. Photo by Tom Brown/VTDigger

Tanker cars rest at a propane transfer station in Berlin. Photo by Tom Brown/VTDigger

“Rail is an important part of supply infrastructure, there’s no question,” said Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association. The amount of oil and gas traveling by rail is only increasing, he said, as production in places like Montana and North Dakota increases.

Petroleum products, he said, frequently come to the Northeast by train via Albany, N.Y. Vermont is supplied from all over New England and has gasoline terminals in Burlington and a propane terminal in Berlin, among others.

“More product is moved by rail because of a lack of infrastructure,” Cota said.

Vermont’s existing rail infrastructure isn’t what it could be. According to a May 2012 report prepared for VTrans by a Cambridge, Mass.-based contractor, it would cost more than $100 million to upgrade all of Vermont’s rail lines to be able to carry 286,000 pounds of freight, the industry standard. The report said “a significant share” of that cost would be the state’s responsibility.

However, there is progress on that front. One rail line, which extends north from Vernon through St. Albans and across the Canadian border, is already mostly upgraded to the 286,000-pound standard after New England Central Railroad invested capital along with a federal grant. The $72 million project funded continuous rail (tracks with no separation between the rails) from Windham County to St. Albans, and an additional $9 million federal grant is set to extend the continuous rail to the Canadian border.

Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Kevin Thompson said in a statement that the federal government is taking steps to ensure rail transit of petroleum products stays safe by “conducting additional hazardous materials safety inspections in the area [of production] as well as facilitating hazardous materials safety training seminars with shippers, consignees, contractors and subcontractors.”

But when asked if the federal government collected hazardous materials information, an FRA official referred VTDigger to Jamie Rennert, deputy director of a federal body called the Surface Transportation Board, saying the board was responsible for collecting the data.

Rennert, however, said they didn’t collect the data, either. If the railroad companies are reporting the data, Rennert said, “it’s not to us.” Rennert said she didn’t know if any government agency collected data on hazardous materials traveling by rail. She referred a query to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

Damon Hill, a spokesman for PHMSA, said the administration only requires companies to report incidents in which they suspect there was a “release” of hazardous materials. However, companies that transport or offer to transport hazardous materials must register annually with PHMSA and ensure their employees have hazmat training.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has authority to get location, cargo and container information about the shipment of most hazardous materials traveling by train. Companies must respond to such requests within 30 minutes. The body also has authority to inspect shipping operations for companies that transport hazardous materials without advance notice.

“TSA’s role in tracking certain hazardous materials known as ‘Rail Security-Sensitive Materials’ or RSSM, is to maintain awareness of where rail security sensitive materials are being transported and the length of time these shipments are in High Threat Urban Areas,” said a TSA spokeswoman in an email.

Companies must only provide information upon request and are not required to report movement of hazardous materials, she said. Carriers are not required to update the TSA about such movements unless that body makes a specific request or the carrier suspects a security risk.

According to PHMSA’s data, there have been 155 hazmat release incidents in Vermont since 2004, only four of which involved rail travel. No injuries were reported in relation to the incidents, though they combined for a total of $1,067,200 in damage. Nationally, rail travel made up 4.5 percent of all transportation incidents involving hazardous materials from 2003 through 2012.

While there is federal regulation and regular inspection of railroad tracks in addition to a weekly self-inspection completed by the railroad companies, it isn’t perfect. In 2007, a VRS train moving 15 freight cars of gasoline derailed near Middlebury. In that incident, none of the gasoline ignited.

Herrick, the head of Vermont’s Hazardous Materials Response Team, said the state’s readiness for such events paid off.

“It was actually a very positive response,” he said. “Middlebury Fire Department, the state hazmat team, and Vermont Railway all coordinated on the response.”

Herrick said the state hazmat team is prepared for responses to any rail line in the state, even if they don’t know which carry hazardous freight.

“Even if it’s not carrying what you would consider a dangerous hazmat,” he said, “the locomotive carries a fair amount of fuel in itself.”

Herrick said his team does not have specific response plans with each community along Vermont’s rail lines, but they are able to respond and work in cooperation with any local fire department in the state should a hazmat event occur.

“The plan is, when they call we roll into their incident and we assist is any way we can,” Herrick said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story cited upgrades to the rail line from Bennington to St. Albans. The improvements were along the Amtrak Vermonter route from Vernon/Brattleboro to St. Albans.

Taylor Dobbs

Comments

  1. Jab Ban :

    Considerations of safety needs to also look at deficiencies of equipment such as the frequently reported risks of the DOT-111 tank car that was involved in Lac Megantic which has a much higher probability of rupture than a double hulled version. Limitations of the rail bed to handle the heavy load of rail cars fully loaded results in rail companies filling the tank car 2/3 full such that volatile flammable hydrocarbons fill the remaining third of a load of crude oil. Strict regulations need to be in place for use of both air brakes and hand brakes when a train is stopped. Staffing considerations for rail operation should not allow such practices as that of Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic to have just one engineer on the train who then gets thrown under the bus in blame by the company when this disaster happens.

  2. Eric Davis :

    The rail line that was upgraded to the 286,000 pound standard does not start in Bennington. The upgraded line starts on the east side of the state – it runs up the Connecticut Valley – then goes from White River Junction to St. Albans.

    The line from Bennington to Rutland is in generally poor shape.

    The state has submitted several grant applications to the federal goverment for upgrading the line from Rutland to Burlington, but none of those grants have been funded. This line is important for the transport of petroleum products – much of the fuel oil and gasoline used in northwestern Vermont is shipped by train from Albany to Rutland and then up to Burlington.

  3. Alice Barnham :

    TheFreeDictionary

    *asleep at the switch
    Fig. not attending to one’s job; failing to do one’s duty at the proper time. (Alludes to a technician or engineer on a train sleeping instead of turning whatever switches are required. *Typically: be ~; fall ~.) The security guard fell asleep at the switch and a robber broke in. If I hadn’t been asleep at the switch, I’d have noticed the car being stolen.

    asleep at the switch
    not paying attention asleep at the wheel Health experts were asleep at the switch when the disease began to spread rapidly again.
    Etymology: based on the idea of someone going to sleep while they are responsible for operating the switch (device) that allows a train to move from one track to another.

  4. Bea Loftig :

    So seriously, you expect a govt that is composed of criminals and perverts, a govt consumed with spying on our every movement and communication, to protect us? And how does forcing companies to report even more of their activities than the bureaucrats already require protect anyone?

    Your premise, that “collecting data” on movements somehow equals safety is absurd. The Canadian and Quebec govts could have known all about that trainload of oil — people wd still have died. And your pushing for a corrupt and evil State to know more about these movements aids and abets the tyrants who lord it over us.

  5. Walter Freed :

    The largest rail supplied propane terminal in Vermont is located in Dorset along Rt 7.

  6. Wendy Raven :

    This is seriously wrong and needs to change…..I am appalled the lack of information and planning here in Vermont relative to hazards traveling the rails….seems like it’s all about scrambling AFTER something happens….when will we learn in the US to PLAN AHEAD?

  7. Connie Godin :

    Rail was all but abandoned in Vt a couple of decades ago. Now that it is being used again money needs to be spent. Heavy rain isn’t good for safe rails as we have seen in the past. I certainly don’t think the State or the RR do proactive anything. Just wait, something bad will happen here also if status quo is maintained.

  8. John Light :

    Jab:

    We were pleased to not use of the word “reported”. The 111A
    tank car has completed millions loaded trips, with little or limited instances. Had there been challenges with the car being able to complete its assignments, the AAR Tank Car Committee and the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) would of implemented corrective action.
    Operating wording issues was not clear, …..”sufficient”?
    11 applied hand brake on a 72 car train is over 10% of the train. Is 10%, 15%, 25% 50% or 100% “sufficient? One member crews with remote control packages on hazmat trains might not be enough.
    Many prior trains have been stopped at the same terminal site, and departed, with no instances. What happen in this instance still remain uncertain many in the field.

    Eric:
    Since grants have been sought and not be forthcoming, perhaps it is the Vermont elected, that is asleep instead of the the locomotive engineer. An crew member with strick hour of service rules, requiring his or her rest. Rest in a comfortable off site quite lodging. The crew assigned duty was getting obtaining sleep, for its next shift, not watching a sitting train.

    Alice, it is felt that the crew was not asleep while on work site. After climbing up on the safety platform and applying 11 handbrakes, and then walking to the next cars, one is not going to fall asleep during this physical event.

    Ben:

    The data sought on the Vermont’s hazmat rail shipments is out there somewhere. It might be buried in mounts of other data, but somewhere it is there. Tomorrow morning check your house for drones before going off to work.

    Connie:

    Walter:

    The largest rail supplied propane terminal in Vermont is located in Dorset along Rt 7.

    So. What does this have to done with the instance? As long as the terminal continues to operate safety, meet all of its regulatory regulations, there is no problem.

    Wendy:
    Apalled? Most likely, you do not attend the freight & transportation planning public meetings. If you are really appalled, then attend agency meetings and let those there, that you are upset. Since you feel that your elected representatives decisions in your best interest: that are incorrect, then it is your duty to correct it.
    Connie:

    A couple of decades ago, is a long long time ago. Prevailing Class 1 Railroads infrastructures are much much better than those in the past.

    Today’s Ford Mustangs (2013s are much better vehicles than the 1964 Mustangs. Today’s railroads are in much better shape than what it was in 1964.
    How much is “proactive” is sufficient?

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