Well there’s some very bad news for those of you who don’t want to be blown to smithereens in your sleep by a bomb train or your local fertilizer supplier.
Brakes are for wimps
As those of you who read my posts on the Lac Megantic disaster where 47 people were incinerated by a “bomb train” that derailed in the middle of town, brakes on trains are complicated and often fallible safety devices. This is how they work: A brake pipe runs the length of the train which supplies air to reservoirs mounted on each of the cars. When the brakes are needed, the engineer uses control valves to reduce brake pipe pressure and the engineer releases the brakes by charging the brake pipe. This system has problems. As we saw at Lac Megantic, turning off the locomotive also turns off the air brakes. In addition, being as the air is controlled by the engineer in the locomotive, it can take time for the braking to reach the end of a long train, causing uneven braking as the cars in front brake before the cars behind them, causing the faster rear rail cars to bump into the slower forward cars.
This was a brilliant system — when it was invented around the time of the Civil War. And this is still the main way that trains are stopped 150 years later.
Now you may be saying “Huh?” We can pretty much run the world — or destroy the world — from a computer screen, but trains carrying tens of thousands of gallons of highly combustible crude oil through highly populated areas still depend on 150 year old braking technology?
Well, the bad news is “yes.”
If you happen to be unlucky enough to live near tracks over which trains carry crude oil, the benefits of protecting you are much less than the costs to the rail industry. At least according to the rail industry — and the Trump administration.
But the good news is that railroading has entered the 21st century with the invention of Electronically Controlled Pneumatic Brakes — or ECP braking systems. ECP braking uses electronic controls via an electronic cable that simultaneously activates air-powered brakes on the cars down the entire length of the train. The advantage is that the brakes are applied uniformly and instantaneously, providing better train control, significantly shorter stopping distances and lower risk of derailment.
In 2015, after a series of oil train explosions in Alabama, North Dakota, and elsewhere that resulted in the release of hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil, the Obama administration’s Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a rule requiring trains carrying oil to install ECP by 2021, over significant industry opposition. After the rule was finalized, Congress called for DOT to conduct an updated cost-benefit analysis of the the ECP brake requirement.
The Trump administration conducted the new cost benefit analysis and, lo and behold, found that instead of implementation of the requirements costing $493 million, as the Obama administration had estimated, “the Department’s analysis shows that the expected costs of requiring ECP brakes would be significantly higher than the expected benefits of the requirement.” More in the neighborhood of $3 billion as the railroad industry had estimated.
So, if you happen to be unlucky enough to live near tracks over which trains carry crude oil, the benefits of protecting you are much less than the costs to the rail industry. At least according to the rail industry — and the Trump administration.
But if railroads want to voluntarily install ECP brakes, the federal government won’t stop them. So there’s that.
Beware Your Local Chemical Plant
Meanwhile, even if you’re far from the tracks, you can’t necessarily breathe easy. The farm and fertilizer lobby has quietly inserted language into the House Farm Bill that even Trump’s Labor Department says could jeopardize worker safety, according to the Houston Chronicle. What we’re talking about here, as we wrote a couple of months ago, is the “retail exemption” to OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard (PSM), the agency’s rules that protect workers in the nation’s chemical facilities.
OSHA’s PSM standard exempts “retail facilities,” but does not define what a “retail facility” actually is. The preamble to the standard suggested that OSHA intended the retail exemption to cover facilities that sold small packages of chemicals — like gas stations or hardware stores. But shortly after the PSM standard was issued, OSHA issued a different “interpretation,” defining a retail establishment as one that sold more than 50% of its highly hazardous materials to “end users.” So no matter how much of a hazardous material a plant stored, if one dollar more than 50% was sold to farms (which are defined as “end users” for some reason) or backyard gardeners, the facility was exempt from PSM. Under that definition, West Fertilizer was a “retail facility” even though it stored large amounts of highly hazardous chemicals.
After the explosion, the nation learned that OSHA had not inspected West Fertilizer since the 1980’s because even though OSHA was conducting a chemical facility National Emphasis Program which focused inspections on the nation’s thousands of PSM-covered facilities that stored or used large amounts of hazardous chemicals. Why wasn’t West, which stored 300,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and two vessels containing tens of thousands of gallons of anhydrous ammonia on site, not covered by OSHA’s chemical facility standard? Because the facility fell under OSHA’s retail exemption. It sold most of these chemicals to farmers.
OSHA opposes the House language because it “would create enforcement problems” and “effectively eliminate the entire chemical manufacturing sector from coverage under the PSM standard, jeopardizing the safety and health of chemical facility workers.”
An Obama administration Executive Order told OSHA to fix the retail exemption, but a victorious lawsuit brought by the Agricultural Retailers Association forced OSHA to go through full notice and comment rulemaking to make the change — a slow process that is part of OSHA’s PSM modernization project which has been put on the back burner by the Trump Administration.
The Farm Bill passed in the House of Representatives would order OSHA to codify the old, bad language. “They’re trying to codify bad language into law so a future administration would be unable to do anything about it,” said Katie Tracy, policy analyst for the Center for Progressive Reform, “They’re putting it in the Farm Bill where no one will ever see it.”
No such language exists in the Senate Farm Bill and a House-Senate Conference Committee is currently trying to hammer out the differences.
Not even Trump’s OSHA thinks this is a good idea. A document sent by OSHA to the Conference Committee opposes the House language because it “would create enforcement problems for OSHA” and “effectively eliminate the entire chemical manufacturing sector from coverage under the PSM standard, jeopardizing the safety and health of chemical facility workers.”
Passage of this language would be bad, not just for chemical plant safety, but for all workplace and environmental protections: “Jordan Barab, OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary in the Obama administration, says that approval of the OSHA provision adopted by the House would be bad for worker safety. ‘If this is successful, it would be the first case of an industry saying, ‘We understand this is important, but we want to be exempted,’ This really is a precedent you don’t want to set,’ Barab said.”