Rail workers’ health


Visibility was 10 miles and the morning sun had pushed the temperature close to 90 as Danny Joe Hall guided his mile-long Union Pacific freight train east through the grasslands of the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Near the farming town of Goodwell, federal investigators said, the 56-year-old engineer sped through a series of yellow and red signals warning him to slow down and stop for a Los Angeles-bound train moving slowly onto a side track.

The 83-mph collision killed Hall and two crewmen. Dozens of freight cars derailed, and the resulting inferno sent towers of black smoke over the plains, prompting the evacuation of a nearby trailer park.

As it turned out, Hall was colorblind.

The National Transportation Safety Board‘s subsequent probe of the June 2012 wreck faulted the engineer’s deteriorating eyesight and inadequate medical screening that failed to fully evaluate his vision problems.

But the Goodwell crash underscored a far larger concern: Railroads are the only mode of U.S. commercial transportation without national requirements for thorough, regular health screenings to identify worker ailments and medications that could compromise public safety.

Crash investigations have linked train accidents to railway workers’ health problems. The Goodwell crash and a rear-end collision in Iowa in 2011 that killed an engineer and conductor are among those that authorities believe could have been prevented with more rigorous medical testing of train crews.

Federal investigators are examining whether an engineer’s severe case of undiagnosed sleep apnea — a condition that can cause fatigue — contributed to last year’s derailment of a New York commuter train that killed four passengers and injured 59. Union and legal representatives of the engineer have said he either nodded off or went into a daze before heading into a 30-mph curve at 82 mph.

The NTSB found that the engineer’s doctors never evaluated him for the condition, and medical guidelines provided to employees by the Metro-North Railroad did not mention sleep disorders.

“The problems are not getting fixed, and more significant risks could occur as the population of railroad workers ages,” said Mark Rosekind, an NTSB board member.

In contrast, airline pilots, truckers, bus drivers and maritime professionals must undergo medical examinations with stricter requirements annually or every few years. In those industries, more frequent evaluations are required for workers over 40 or who have chronic medical conditions that can worsen.

Severe allergies, heart disease, poor vision, sleep disorders and diabetes — as well as use of medicines with serious side effects — are among the health issues that can disqualify workers if the conditions can’t be adequately controlled.

Since 1988, the NTSB has pushed unsuccessfully for similar standards for more than 100,000 locomotive engineers, conductors and other railway workers. But the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees the industry, has balked at imposing mandatory, comprehensive medical requirements.

Working with unions and carriers, the FRA has opted for non-mandatory education programs for rail workers, formal advisory notices and other strategies to reduce risks associated with health problems.

“The FRA is committed to ensuring that train operators are fit for duty,” said agency spokesman Kevin F. Thompson. The administration “continues to work with labor and industry to comprehensively address standardized medical practices.”

Currently, engineers and conductors are required to pass vision and hearing tests every three years. In a statement, Union Pacific, which employed the engineer faulted by the NTSB in the Goodwell crash, said it complies fully with current federal standards. Train crews also undergo random testing for alcohol and illegal drug use.

Railroads typically require physical exams when someone is offered a job, as well as after an extended medical leave or when an employee’s health is questioned at work. In addition, railroad medical departments offer wellness programs.

Some rail carriers, either on their own or after NTSB crash investigations, have voluntarily adopted measures that exceed federal standards, including obtaining medical histories of employees and educating workers about sleep disorders and medications. Amtrak, for example, requires annual medical examinations for engineers.

The FRA’s Thompson said current regulations and voluntary industry screening programs have contributed to a steady decline in railroad accidents. The last two years have been among the safest for the industry, and Thompson noted that no fatal train wrecks linked to the health problems of train operators occurred between 2002 and 2010.

However, NTSB officials, safety experts and former FRA officials say there is ample evidence that current practices, which put much of the onus to disclose serious medical problems on workers, need to be strengthened.

Dozens of crashes ranging from deadly collisions to less serious mishaps have been linked to sleep disorders, mental illness, poor vision and medications that can cause drowsiness, FRA and NTSB records show. Accidents have likewise been tied to a host of other maladies such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

In 2001, a Canadian National Railway train ran a stop signal outside Clarkston, Mich., and rammed into an Illinois Central Railway train, killing its crew. NTSB investigators concluded that the Canadian railway engineer and conductor were fatigued because of sleep apnea. Doctors had told both men they had the condition, but neither obtained adequate treatment, the investigators concluded.

Three years ago, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe coal train whose two crew members had fallen asleep rear-ended a BNSF track maintenance train outside Red Oak, Iowa. The coal train’s crewmen were killed. Both were found to have serious medical problems, including obesity, high blood pressure, depression and diabetes, for which they were taking medications that officials say may cause drowsiness.

The full extent to which medical problems contribute to accidents is difficult to determine. Federal crash reports don’t always state an underlying cause; and NTSB investigators, who examine the medical conditions and histories of train crews after accidents, typically probe only the most serious incidents.

Because of data-gathering shortcomings “medical impairments are probably responsible for more accidents than the reports reflect,” said Bruce Fine, a former FRA associate administrator for safety.

NTSB investigations alone have linked medical problems to 13 serious train accidents since 1984. FRA data show that over the last three decades, some physical condition of a worker was a factor in at least 86 accidents that killed nine people and injured 61.

Almost three-quarters of those accidents involved employee fatigue, although the records do not indicate if sleep disorders or potentially sedating medications contributed to the fatigue.

One FRA analysis found that of 36 on-duty deaths of railway workers in 2003, 20 were a result of medical problems, primarily heart attacks. All of the workers involved were older than 47, raising fears among regulators about the potential safety risks of aging train crews. Most of the rail labor force is now over 45.

Despite such concerns, reform has been slow. After the 2001 Canadian railway crash was linked to sleep disorders, the FRA ramped up education programs, issued safety advisories and launched a study concluding that industrywide medical standards were needed and probably could have prevented past accidents.

The 2005 FRA report noted that at one of the nation’s largest railroads only 1% of workers had enrolled in a voluntary training course on sleep disorders.

Progress on new regulations, however, ran head-on into union and management concerns about the potential effects on rail operations and on the privacy of workers’ health records.

“Does a railroad really need to know if I take Lipitor or other prescriptions?” said James A. Stem Jr., the national legislative director for the United Transportation Union.

William C. Keppen, a Maryland-based transportation safety consultant, said one solution could be the use of independent medical examiners to determine if rail employees are fit to work but who withhold specific findings from employers, a system used for pilots.

By 2012, the attempt to draft comprehensive requirements collapsed. Medical professionals, union officials and industry representatives couldn’t agree on how to proceed, according to FRA officials and NTSB records. FRA officials also said the proposals would be too expensive for carriers, although a cost-benefit analysis was not performed.

“It was not a trivial amount of money for the railroads,” said Grady C. Cothen Jr., who headed the FRA’s regulatory program before retiring in 2010. But industrywide regulations “could have worked with FRA oversight.”

Shortly after the effort stalled, the Goodwell crash occurred and the NTSB renewed its recommendations for comprehensive medical requirements.

FRA officials promised to reconsider vision and hearing standards, revisit the issue of sleep disorders and explore other voluntary measures. In February, the NTSB called that approach “unacceptable.”,0,7019352.story#ixzz2zScXi8jH


California Oil Refining

There are no pipelines that bring crude oil into California. For decades, the fuel that powers the state’s 32 million vehicles has come from tanker ships or in-state production.

But government regulators predict a surge in U.S. oil production will means a steep increase in the number of trains carrying it to California refineries.

The Ventura County Star reported ( ) Sunday that the increase in rail traffic will happen quickly, jumping from 9,000 carloads in 2011 to more than 200,000 carloads by 2016, according to California Energy Commission estimates.

Within a few years, analysts predict 25 percent of oil consumed in California will arrive at state refineries by rail.

According to the California Public Utilities Commission, five California refineries have facilities either about to come online or in the planning stages that will let them receive crude-oil deliveries by rail.

The newspaper said state and local agencies are reviewing plans for responding to possible spills and derailments, with more trains carrying oil through mountain passes, over bridges that cross nearly every major waterway and through the neighborhoods of millions of Californians.

Gov. Jerry Brown has asked lawmakers for an additional $6.7 million for oil-spill response. In its request, the administration noted the increased rail shipments will consist mostly of North Dakota Bakken shale crude oil.

“This type of oil is extremely flammable, and its transport increases the risk of serious accidents,” it says.

Because it contains more natural gas than heavier crude, Bakken oil can have a lower ignition point.

To date, the increased traffic has been mostly in Northern California, involving trains bound for refineries in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the newspaper that statistics from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration show there were more rail accidents involving oil spills last year than over the previous 30 years combined.


Information from: Ventura County Star,


rail service has deteriorated drastically

More than 62 million bushels of wheat remained stored on Montana farms in the first quarter because of lower-than-expected prices and shipping… Read more

WASHINGTON — Grain producers, manufacturers and coal shippers told federal regulators Thursday that rail service has deteriorated drastically in the nation’s midsection in recent months, leaving crops in piles on the ground and fuel stocks low at electric power plants as resources go undelivered.

Railroad representatives told the federal Surface Transportation Board that a brutal winter, combined with a record grain harvest, was to blame for the delays, but the industry’s critics charge that their shipments are taking a back seat to crude oil.

Railroads moved virtually no crude oil just a few years ago, but a surge in production in North Dakota’s Bakken region has strained rail capacity in the Midwest.

It’s putting the squeeze on farmers who rely on rail to turn their crops into cash and delaying passengers on Amtrak’s Empire Builder between Chicago and the Northwest, several witnesses testified.

“The extreme delays to Amtrak and other users of the network are a symptom of a fragile network that is strained and struggling to react,” Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo told the board, which mediates disputes between railroads and their customers.

Bob Wisness, the president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, said the rail snarls had put his state’s farmers in jeopardy. Millions of bushels of wheat, barley and corn are “unmarketable” because of rail deliveries that are weeks and months late.

“We have had big crops before,” he testified, “but we have never had service this poor from the railroads.”

Bob Kahn, the general manager of the Texas Municipal Power Agency, testified that the service problems began almost a year ago. The state depends on coal deliveries by rail to generate a third of its electricity, and lately railroads have not kept up, Kahn said.

Despite reassurances from BNSF, the railroad that supplies the coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, Kahn said, some Texas plants only have a 10-day supply and could run out by the summer, when electricity demand reaches its peak in the state.

“They keep saying, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not going to run out of coal,’ ” he testified. “We don’t see it getting any better.”

While railroad officials acknowledged the problems and the shippers’ frustrations, they said they weren’t shoving other commodities aside for crude oil.

“I make more money hauling grain than I do hauling crude,” said Keith Creel, the president and operating chief at Canadian Pacific Railway.

Much of the shippers’ ire was directed at BNSF. The railroad, based in Fort Worth, Texas, has become the nation’s largest hauler of crude oil in trains, mostly from North Dakota.

BNSF said that it alone had absorbed half the growth in U.S. rail volumes last year. Traffic spiked late last year amid a record grain harvest, the railroad said, and the onset of one of the worst winters in memory.

The railroad said it was hiring thousands of new workers, ordering new locomotives and expanding track capacity.

“We’re not 100 percent there yet, and it’s something we continue to work on week by week,” testified Stevan Bobb, the executive vice president and marketing chief for BNSF.

Read more:


positive article about extreme oil extraction from Monterey Shale.

Vast oil trove trapped in Monterey Shale formation

San Joaquin Valley’s Monterey Shale formation may hold 15 billion barrels of oil, but no one has found an affordable way to extract it.



SHAFTER, Calif. — A bustling city is sprouting on five acres here, carved out of a vast almond grove. Tanker trucks and heavy equipment come and go, a row of office trailers runs the length of the site and an imposing 150-foot drilling rig illuminated by football-field-like lights rises over the trees.

It’s all been hustled into service to solve a tantalizing riddle: how to tap into the largest oil shale reservoir in the United States.

Across the southern San Joaquin Valley, oil exploration sites have popped up in agricultural fields and on government land, driven by the hope that technological advances in oil extraction — primarily hydraulic fracturing and acidization — can help provide access to deep and lucrative oil reserves.

The race began after the federal Energy Information Administration estimated in 2011 that more than 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil is trapped in what’s known as the Monterey Shale formation, which covers 1,750 square miles, roughly from Bakersfield to Fresno.

But getting at that oil isn’t easy. The Monterey Shale is unlike other oil shale formations across the United States. In those booming oil fields, reserves are pooled in orderly strata of rock. Once the rock is cracked open by fracking or other means, operators can sink a single well with multiple horizontal shafts and pull in oil from a wide area.

California’s geology is far more complicated. The earth under the Monterey Shale has undergone constant seismic reshaping that has folded, stacked and fractured the substrate, trapping the oil in accordion pleats of hard rock at depths of up to 12,000 feet. To reach the crude using conventional methods requires oil companies to drill far-deeper wells, and more of them — a prohibitively expensive undertaking.

To crack the code, companies are busily drilling test wells here, using various fracking and acidization techniques in search of cheaper solutions. So far, no one seems to have found a method to profitably extract the oil.

“Very smart engineers are spending their waking hours trying to come up with the magic formula,” said Rock Zierman, chief executive of the California Independent Petroleum Assn., a trade group that has many Monterey Shale prospectors among its members.

“What we do know is there is a heck of lot of oil down there,” Zierman said. “What we don’t know is how we can get it out of the ground in an economically viable way to justify the heavy investment.”

The shallow, 1,000-foot wells in the established Bakersfield oil patch might cost a hundred thousand dollars to sink. In the Monterey formation, that expense might run to $5 million, and with every chance of yielding a dry hole.

Despite the difficulty getting at the oil, the potential bonanza is too big for many oil companies to ignore.

In Kern County — where the bulk of the Monterey formation lies — available land for drilling has nearly all been snapped up. Speculators are believed to be responsible for driving up the cost of obtaining leases.

In 2007, the average successful bid for an acre of land for oil leasing went for $2, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management. The price has since soared above $500, with some recent parcels going for twice that. Oil companies drove up prices sharply in 2010, as various federal assessments began to hint at the magnitude of the Monterey reserves.

The leading edge of the exploration boom is pushing Bakersfield’s oil patch — which has reliably produced oil for more than 100 years — into long-established agricultural tracts. Oil companies are now paying farmers for their water rights, land and, in some cases, buying their homes outright to get at the reserves that might lie underneath.

Exploratory wells are sprouting near homes, schools and in the town of Shafter, where the city charges drillers to hook up to corner fire hydrants for the water they require. Companies are searching for the best well sites with 3D seismic “thumper trucks” that send shock waves underground to create a picture of subterranean deposits.

Should energy companies find a way to crack the Monterey’s deeply folded rock, the ensuing boom could be transformative for California. A USC economic study forecast an enormous impact: A Monterey-fueled oil shale industry could create 2.3 million new jobs by 2020 and boost the state’s GDP by as much as 14%.

The report, which was funded by the energy industry and published in 2013, projected that the Monterey formation had the potential to increase oil production in California sevenfold.

The implications are profound, touching on public health, water use, water quality and the loss of agricultural land. The subsequent transformation also would alter the lives of families living in the resolutely rural communities dotting the valley.

For Tom Frantz, a retired teacher and third-generation farmer, the exploratory drilling is already too much.

“This is prime farmland and they have drilled between 200 and 300 wells in the last 10 years in the Monterey Shale,” Frantz said. “Every one took out an acre or two of farmland. Every one has used hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. Each one has contributed to our air pollution. Each one has had spills on the ground of different chemicals and crude oil. Each one is emitting methane as we speak.

“If this thing happens and there are thousands and thousands of wells — that’s scary because an accident is bound to happen,” he said.

All the predictions — both enthusiastic and dire — are predicated on cracking into the stubborn Monterey formation.

David Hughes, a geoscientist at the Santa Rosa-based Post Carbon Institute, studied both the USC report and the federal data and then published his own assessment, which casts a skeptical eye on the rosy assumptions. His conclusion: “It’s not going to happen.”

Reviewing industry-generated data, Hughes said test wells in the Monterey so far have been expensive and unproductive.

“California oil production peaked in the early ’80s,” Hughes said. “It’s now down to half that. If the Monterey Shale can just maintain California’s production level — I would think that’s about all it could do.”

The uncertainty has kept some of the industry’s heavy hitters on the sidelines. And although the big companies are loath to reveal their strategies, Chevron‘s chief executive has said, “The jury’s out on Monterey Shale.”

Gabe Garcia, manager of the Bakersfield office of the BLM, which permits drilling on federal land, said no one has yet found enough accessible crude to make extraction profitable. “We’ve got areas where they’ve drilled several wells and they are still trying to prove economics to us,” Garcia said.

Any technology that succeeds will probably include either hydraulic fracturing — fracking — or acidizing. Fracking is a controversial but long-used technique that sends a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals and sand into a well bore to explode the “tight” rock formation and free the oil. Acidizing entails shooting a potent mix of highly corrosive chemicals into the formation to dissolve the rock.

Both practices are under review by the state of California and the BLM and are, at the moment, unregulated.

Another aspect of fracking presents a unique challenge in California. The process of reinjecting drilling fluids into the ground is thought by some to stimulate minor seismic activity around drilling pads, dubbed “frackquakes.”

Fracking operations in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania have measured this phenomenon, but industry officials vigorously dispute the theory.

The San Andreas fault traces the western outline of the Monterey formation.



Oil trains

Oil trains into Richmond spark lawsuit

Updated 6:45 am, Saturday, April 5, 2014
Little noticed by neighbors, trains carrying crude oil from the Great Plains have been rumbling into a Richmond rail yard.

The cargo is the same kind of crude that fueled a deadly explosion last summer when a train carrying the oil derailed in a small Quebec town, killing 47. Now environmentalists are suing to prevent any more shipments to Richmond.

The suit, filed last week in state Superior Court in San Francisco, would revoke a permit issued by a regional agency in February that allows Kinder Morgan to unload oil trains in Richmond at a facility originally built to unload ethanol.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District granted the permit without studying how the switch from shipping ethanol to oil could affect the environment, said Kristen Boyles, staff attorney with Earthjustice, the group that filed the suit on behalf of four other environmental organizations.

“These things are going in without a lot of thought to their safety, their impact on the environment and their possible health effects,” Boyles said. “That’s what’s really frustrating with this situation – how little we know until this is rolling through our backyards.”

Kinder Morgan declined comment.

Ralph Borrmann, an agency spokesman, said the change in fuels handled by Kinder Morgan’s rail-yard facility would not increase air pollution – his agency’s primary concern.

“There were no emissions consequences as a result of the permit, no net increase of emissions, which is what we look at,” Borrmann said.

Just a few years ago, California didn’t import oil by rail. But that’s changing fast.

In 2009, railways carried just 45,000 barrels of oil into the Golden State, according to theCalifornia Energy Commission. By last year, that number had soared to 6.2 million barrels. A barrel equals 42 gallons.

Petroleum glut

California’s refineries have turned to rail to access a glut of petroleum in the Great Plains. Oil production in the Bakken Shale formation that lies beneath North Dakota and Montana has surged so much, so quickly, that area’s pipelines lack the capacity to transport the fuel. As a result, the Bakken oil sells at a discount to other kinds of crude.

Oil by rail is “about discounted oil, delivered to your doorstep,” said Gordon Schremp, senior analyst with the Energy Commission.

The amount of oil carried by rail is rising nationwide. While most of those shipments reach their destination without incident, the United States and Canada have recently seen a series of oil-train accidents leading to explosions and fires, including last July’s derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. In January, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an alert warning that Bakken crude, much lighter than many other grades of oil, may be more flammable as well.

Benicia refinery

The warning spurred opposition to a series of oil-by-rail projects in California. Valero’s refinery in Benicia is seeking approval to build a rail yard that could move 70,000 barrels of oil each day, replacing more than half of the petroleum the refinery now imports from abroad, via ship.

In Pittsburg, another project would bring in oil by ship, pipeline and rail. The $200 million proposal, by WesPac Energy, would refurbish an old Pacific Gas and Electric Co. facility to import, store and supply oil to Bay Area refineries.

Community groups have spent months fighting those proposals. But most Richmond residents knew nothing about Kinder Morgan’s Richmond rail facility until television station KPIX reported on the issue last month.

Kinder Morgan applied to convert its existing ethanol offloading facility last year, and won an operating permit from the air district in February. KPIX filmed trucks carrying oil from the facility to the Tesoro refinery in Martinez.

Tesoro’s comment

A Tesoro spokeswoman on Friday declined to confirm whether the refinery collaborates with Kinder Morgan’s Richmond facility. But she said the refinery uses about 5,000 to 10,000 barrels of oil per day taken from rail shipments, equal to between two and four train shipments per month.

Earthjustice and its partners in the suit – the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, the Natural Resources Defense Council and theSierra Club - want Kinder Morgan’s operating permit in Richmond revoked until the company conducts a full environmental impact review.

“The risk of train accidents is huge with this kind of crude oil,” Boyles said.

David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Twitter: @DavidBakerSF


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