Half of surveyed oil train bridges are deteriorating, report says
A survey of 250 oil train bridges across America found that almost half showed signs of considerable deterioration, including missing or crumbling concrete, partially washed-away footings, rotted pilings and badly corroded steel beams, according to a report released Tuesday (PDF).
Determining whether the problems found by three environmental groups pose a threat to public safety is almost impossible, however, because the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) rarely inspects the nation’s estimated 100,000 rail bridges, including some built more than 100 years ago. Instead the agency leaves that responsibility to the railroads, which don’t make their inspection records public.
“Because the federal government has shirked its responsibility to regulate the safety of oil trains and the bridges they cross, we are shining a light on the need for immediate, independent inspections of all rail bridges that carry explosive oil trains,” said Marc Yaggi, the executive director of the Waterkeeper Alliance, one of the groups that produced the report.
The Waterkeeper Alliance, which is dedicated to protecting watersheds around the world, was assisted in the report by two other groups also concerned about oil trains, Riverkeeper and ForestEthics.
The report, “Deadly Crossing: Neglected Bridges and Exploding Oil Trains,” cited Department of Transportation statistics showing that bridge failures caused 58 train accidents from 1982 to 2008.
“The magnitude of the threat of an oil train derailment caused by a failing bridge to the surrounding communities, waterways and drinking water means that, even if rare, an accident could be catastrophic,” the report said.
Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, who was unable to review the still unreleased report, said rail bridges in use today are capable of safely supporting oil trains, which can be more than a mile in length pulling more than 100 tankers loaded with 3 million gallons of crude oil.
“Railroad bridges are among the safest segments of the nation’s infrastructure,” he said. “Some bridges are painted. Others are not. Some are more weathered than others. But outward appearance does not indicate a bridge’s safety. Inspectors scrutinize a bridge to assess its structural integrity, which is a thoughtful and thorough engineering process, with no relationship to whether the bridge is aesthetically pleasing.”
No bridge collapse appears to have been involved in any of the 10 fiery oil train derailments that have occurred in North America in the past 29 months.
Greenberg noted that the environmental groups’ report involves “observations by noncertified bridge inspectors,” adding that the industry “follows an aggressive 24/7 safety-first process should a bridge inspector or train crew raise a concern about a particular bridge. That structure is immediately taken out of service until a qualified railroad bridge engineer examines the structure to determine its condition.” If a safety problem is confirmed, “a process is in place to get crews to the structure to address the situation.”
But there is no public documentation of this process, so the railroads aren’t accountable to state and local officials. The FRA says Congress hasn’t given it the authorization or resources to independently inspect rail bridges or to force the railroads to be more transparent.
Sarah Feinberg, the head of the FRA, has begun a campaign to get them to be more voluntarily transparent. Her efforts came after Milwaukee officials and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., tried unsuccessfully to get Canadian Pacific to turn over inspection reports on a 99-year-old steel bridge there, dubbed Old Rusty by locals. Concern was raised by news reports this spring that showed corrosion had eaten away the base of some of the bridge’s support beams.
In September, Feinberg wrote a letter to hundreds of railroads, including Canadian Pacific, imploring them to be more open and cooperative, saying, “When a local leader or elected official asks a railroad about the safety status of a railroad bridge, they deserve a timely and transparent response.”
After receiving the letter, Canadian Pacific agreed to discuss local officials’ technical questions behind closed doors. But the railroad still rejected their requests to see the inspection reports. The FRA looked at the bridge and inspection reports and then declared it safe, without elaborating. By then, the railroad had already announced it would be repairing the bridge, including fortifying some of its corroded steel beams with concrete.
Canadian Pacific did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.
Last week Feinberg took the additional step of warning the railroads that complaints about rail bridges are pouring into the offices of members of Congress who have then contacted the railroads and “are coming away unconvinced.” If that continues, she warned, “Congress will ask us to step in more aggressively.”
Matthew Lehner, the FRA’s associate administrator for communications, said the agency won’t comment on the Waterkeeper report until it is released. He said an earlier statement by Feinberg summed up her stance on rail bridges. In that statement, she said the FRA “has started re-evaluating the current bridge management program to identity what more can be done with its current, limited resources.”
“We are committed to working with and engaging more local communities, elected officials and the industry to develop a strategy that will raise the bar on rail bridge safety to meet the nation’s current and future transportation needs. The public has put its trust in the FRA to take smart and prudent action to keep them safe, and we will continue working to earn that trust every day.”
The FRA receives complaints about the condition of railroad bridges almost daily, said an FRA official speaking on condition of anonymity in order to comment freely, and in most cases the problems turn out to be cosmetic rather than structural. However, the official said there’s no formal procedure for adjudicating public concerns about rail bridges and no central record kept of complaints.
In January 2014, John Wathen, the “keeper” of Hurricane Creek in Alabama, posted a video of an oil train crossing a 116-year-old wooden bridge in Tuscaloosa. Some of the trestles supporting the oil train, 40 feet above public parks on either side of the Black Warrior River, were resting on posts that were rotted or had makeshift repairs of corrugated pipe and concrete.
The railroad and the FRA insisted the bridge was safe, but a year after Wathen posted his video and began calling attention to the condition of the bridge, the railroad that leases and operates it announced it would do $2.5 million in repairs. It replaced many but not all the rotted pilings. Whether the bridge is safe is unclear because there are no federal engineering standards for rail bridges and even industry standards are silent about the number of defective pilings a rail bridge may have and still be safe.
In their new report, the environmental groups call for a “publicly available national inventory of bridges, a protocol for following up on citizen complaints and concerns and an enforceable set of standards to guide agency action and ensure the safety of railroad bridges.”
The report calls on Congress to “give the FRA the legal and financial tools it requires to run a robust rail bridge safety program.” If Congress fails to act, the report urges the administration to make changes “within the existing system — or outside of it at the state and local level.”
Currently, states and localities are hampered in their dealings with railroads by a system that places most of the regulatory authority over railroads in the hands of the federal government.
That frustration is what led the Waterkeeper Alliance and Riverkeeper to deploy their legion of river, bay and creek “keepers” in kayaks and patrol boats to inspect rail bridges in watersheds across America. Over the summer, 21 “keepers” inspected 250 bridges within the watersheds of rivers like the Columbia, Snake, Hudson, Allegheny and James. They found and documented what they believed to be structural concerns with 114 of the bridges.
Pat Calvert, the “keeper” of the upper James River in Virginia, was one of them. Two years ago, before he knew about the dangers of oil trains, he was focusing instead on the threat of chemical and coal ash spills to the James. But on April 30, 2014, a CSX oil train derailed and set fire to the river a few blocks from his Lynchburg, Virginia, office.
A year and a half later, he still wonders how he missed the risk rising under his nose. He didn’t realize the mile-long oil trains rolling along the riverbank might pose a public safety hazard.
“I didn’t feel so bad when I learned most all emergency planning officials up and down that rail line also did not know [about the risk] and had not been contacted by CSX,” Calvert said. “We were in some ways being duped by the industries that are involved in this.”
Oil trains are a relatively recent phenomenon, arising from the surge in oil produced in North Dakota through hydraulic fracturing. The number of tankers transporting crude, much of it from North Dakota, rose from 9,500 in 2008 to almost 500,000 last year.
Jerry White Jr. is the “keeper” along the Spokane River in eastern Washington. Spokane is a chokepoint in the flow of crude oil from Canada and North Dakota to refineries on the West Coast.
White surveyed two rail bridges across the Spokane River and elevated tracks running over the streets of Spokane. Videographers Rosie Ennis and Joseph Comine documented White’s findings. All three were shocked by what they saw, they said.
“On the city bridges, you’ve got rebar exposed under the concrete,” said White. “On the bridges over the river, you’ve got footings that have actually begun to wash out so that the bridges have begun to settle and crack.”
Comine said he’s angry and frustrated that residents of Spokane aren’t able to independently assess the risk from oil trains because the railroads shroud their operations and maintenance activities in secrecy, including prosecuting trespassers.
“It’s really a case where large industry has crafted law and policy around keeping the community shut out of what’s being transported through it,” he said. “Before, I never even paid attention to trains … But, wow, I really pay attention to them now.”