Friday, July 17, 2015

Trains plus crude oil equals trouble down the track

Trains plus crude oil equals trouble down the track

Every day, strings of black tank cars filled with crude oil roll slowly across a long wooden railroad bridge over the Black Warrior River. But with some timber pilings so badly rotted that you can stick your hand right through them, and a “MacGyver”-esque combination of plywood, concrete and plastic pipe employed to patch up others, the bridge demonstrates the limited ability of government and industry to manage the hidden risks of a sudden shift in energy production.

Safe by Whose Standards?

Safe by Whose Standards?

After 2.5 million dollar "repair" job bridge still needs work.

John L. Wathen
(Follow links to more background info. use back button to return here)
((All photos enlarge when clicked))
Flight provided by SouthWings
WATCO Railroad maintains that the bridge over Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa, Al. is safe. By whose standards? Since there are no federal standards for the construction and maintaining such structures who oversees them to make sure they are safe? The owners.

If a developer in town builds a house it goes through rigorous inspections at every step of the process. Doesn't it make sense that an industry that hauls such dangerous cargo's as crude oil and chemicals would be held to a similar national standard for bridges? That's not the case.

After the Alliceville train wreck where a unit train of Bakken crude blew up and left over 20 cars into the swamp there I started really paying attention to the oil-by-rail issue and was disturbed by some of my findings.

During the time the Aliceville tracks were being rebuilt unit trains (bomb trains) were being routed through Tuscaloosa via the oldest bridge over the Black Warrior River in the area. Although WATCO, the owners of the bridge maintain that no Bakken has crossed the bridge. Genesee & Wyoming RR stated that until the cause of the Aliceville wreck was known no oil was being shipped across that line. It was being diverted across a northern route to avoid the Aliceville site. The only feasible route I could find available on that line found on Google maps takes the trains straight through downtown Northport and Tuscaloosa Alabama.

According to WATCO, the bridge is owned by Alabama Southern Railroad. When you look them up the listing says "A Watco Co." So I will refer to WATCO as the responsible party until Someone shows me different. Here is a video report posted during the use of what was described as an alternate route to the north. "Alternate Crude Routes"

While traveling with a reporter from the Aliceville wreck site we saw a unit train of about 100 cars heading into Tuscaloosa along a route that I later found to be in bad condition, or so it seems to me from the decay I saw. Rotted Cross ties, twisted rails, missing spacer plates, spikes not driven in or completely missing. The train was made up just like the Bakken trains with 3 or 4 engines followed by a few box type cars and then as many as 80 to over 100 DOT-111 tank cars followed by 2 more box cars to act as collision buffers.
03/24/15 Aerial photos courtesy of flights by SouthWings
The train in the aerial wasn't one we call bomb trains. It has only about half of the cars normally associated with Bakken trains. I have documented such trains passing over the bridge during the period when the Aliceville line was closed.

We followed it right into town and across an antique bridge built in 1897 to accommodate steam engine trains. In it's day it was state of the art engineering. Today, however it has fallen into disrepair and having to support a lot heaver car with much more dangerous cargoes.
The aerial photo above is of a train hauling only 45 or so cars. It snakes completely around the downtown Northport and passes within mere feet of the parking lots for Tuscaloosa Amphitheater.
For an interactive map visit this link

Following Google Earth you can see where the lines separate in Miss. with one leading to Aliceville and the other to Tuscaloosa. The map seen on the right shows the known explosive oil routes coming out of Miss. There are only 2 coming through this area.

Shortly after the video above was released there was another train wreck in Buhl Alabama on the same line we documented the bomb train only a few weeks prior. This time it was not Bakken and the train seemed to have just rolled off the tracks. It is a class 1 track with a speed limit of less than 10 MPH. After looking at the rotten cross ties I started looking up the line at the infrastructure. What I found was alarming. I am not an engineer nor do I hold any scientific degrees but I consider myself to be less than stupid and have enough common sense to see things that to me are dangerous.

After the Buhl wreck I was contacted by a film crew from the Netherlands wanting to do a story about bomb trains and the Tuscaloosa bridge. I was surprized that a documentary company from overseas saw this as important enough to report.

Shortly after that I was contacted by the Weather Channel wanting to do a piece covering the bridge. It was released on Dec.08, 2014. "Boom" (North America's Oil-By-Rail Problem) I met with the reporter Marcus Stern for a walk about around the bridge. We documented many broken cross members, rusted metal, heavy wooden braces hanging like widow makers from the bridge in a public use area.

McClatchy news agency contacted me about it soon after the Wx Channel left. Curtis Tate came down and had done his homework. He already knew a lot about the issue and routes taken by the trains. His story was released 12/31/14 and was hard hitting. He touched on many of the issues covered by Wx Channel but added a lot of info to the story. "Trains plus crude oil equals trouble down the track".

Until these stories were posted no one locally thought it was news worthy. It was after all the national media attention that a story was posted in the Tuscaloosa News proclaiming the rail road was spending 2.5 million dollars on repairs.  There was a flurry of activity for a while then it stopped. 

Recently I returned to the site with a reporter doing a story for Hemispheres Magazine. I was disappointed to see the still questionable condition of the bridge. Some of the rotten poles had been replaced and some cosmetic repairs, for lack of a better term had been done. The T'News story ran on Jan.11, 2015. When I returned 5 months later I found much to be concerned about still. There were some broken pieces of creosote railing on the ground right under hanging cross arms left hanging during the 2.5 million dollar so-called repairs. 

Several of the poles had been replaced but many more still stand with rotted centers and makeshift  splices. There were two piles of new poles sitting by the bridge but not used. Why? Why not do the whole job instead of using half efforts. It amounts to more like window dressing to me.

In the video accompanying the "Boom" story at 6 min 27 seconds in you will see a broken cross brace installed to stabilize the piers. On May 27th, 10, 2015 which was 4 months after the 2.5 million dollar repairs but it still hangs exactly as it was in Jan. 2015. 
Screen shot of Boom story @ 6 min 27 seconds into video

Photo by John L. Wathen 5/27/15 4 months after repairs began.
Same cross arm hanging 07/15/15, 7 months after repairs began.

I was told by a WATCO representative that they are through with repairs for this year and may plan more for next year. From what I saw it never should have stopped this far short of complete repair. If this is 2.5 million dollars in repairs then it may take about 10 times that to bring it back to a safe condition.  On Jan. 11, 2015 Tracie VanBecelaere, communications director for WATCO, said the bridge work should be finished by next month with the rest of the railroad repairs finished by April 2015. I can see where it still needs much more work before it is safe.

There are loads of fresh creosote poles laying in piles close to the bridge that were never used. Why? I found several bags of concrete long ago hardened by weather in piles not used. Why?If the crews were on hand and the materials were there then why stop short of completing the job?
7/15/15 WATCO says they are through for this year


It makes no sense to me why a company who claims to be so interested in safety would let a bridge decay like this one has in such a sensitive area. They made this comment in the T'News article 7 months ago.
 "Ed McKechnie, Watco's executive vice president and chief commercial officer, said through VanBecelaere that Watco was aware of Wathen's concerns with the train trestle."
"John has a passion for the environment just as we have a passion for the safety of the communities we serve and our team members," she said. "We are constantly reinvesting in our railroads and are committed to operating them safely." This goes way beyond any environmental concerns. This is a concern for human safety!

What I have seen in the past few days leads me to be even more concerned than ever. Not only did they not complete the repairs that were started, there is now more to do than ever.

Examination of the rock pillar in the river on the Tuscaloosa side of the span I found that it was placed on a wooden form, filled with stone from the river and poured with what passed for cement in the 1890's. There were no electric vibrators like we use today to make the concrete settle into the form so many voids can be seen. 

The wooden cribbing has long ago rotted away allowing the stone to pour out into the river. 

Leaving there I walked through the public use areas and found many of the cross arms still broken and hanging like widow makers over people's heads who use the area.Tuscaloosa built the Amphitheater with parking on both sides of the tracks but no safe walking path through the structure. People have to walk under the bridge with no warning of the hazards hanging overhead.

The people and walkway seen in the upper photo are in a public use area behind the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater which is less than 70 feet from the bridge. They were taking photos with a toddler. None of them were aware of the danger of hanging debris until I pointed it out. The young lady seen below was actually sitting on a blanket directly under a hanging cross arm waiting for a train to take pictures. When I showed her the broken member hanging over her she promptly moved.
Seen directly behind her is what I call a makeshift repair that should never have been installed as a permanent fix. It amounts to cutting out a portion of rotten support pole and slipping in a section of new or less used poles. A steel or plastic pipe is slipped over the two and bags of sacked concrete poured in the void. In my opinion this is what amounts to what my dad called jury rigging.

If it were just one here and there it might not pose an issue. The reality of it is that there are more than 200 of these spread throughout the structure. From the Tuscaloosa side where the bridge begins to the river span there are 86, give or take a couple. It's only about an 800 foot span. About 1/4 of those are grouped in one place directly adjacent to the back of the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater.

In this one photo I counted 19 such repairs, 2 broken cross arm braces and lots of rot. I can't believe that after spending 2 million dollars to repair the bridge this is accepted.

On the Northport side I counted 158 such repairs, give or take a couple, starting at second street and going to the river. Some of the heaviest concentrations of such makeshift repairs are within a few feet of residences seen on the left with a couple of tons of discarded waste laying nearby. This is a common practice on this line and others. Simply throwing creosote poles and cross ties in the right of way and drainage ditches is unacceptable.

Steel Cancer! 

On the Northport side along the public walking trail I was shocked to see the amount of rust on the span leading out over the river. It amounted to a steel cancer eating away the very base the bridge needs to hold the weight of today's unit trains and dangerous cargo. Whether there has or has not been shipments of Bakken crude through here it is a fact that unit trains hauling All sorts of crude oil and dangerous chemical cargoes over what should be consider to be a dangerous bridge.

Note the rust stains on the cracked concrete piers.
Rust piled 3 inches deep on concrete fell from steel

The next 3 photos are of the actual steel footers the bridge rests on.
Holes rusted through in critical areas.

From Tuscaloosa News Jan. 11, 2015
"Watco said the train trestle is inspected annually by Watco inspectors, Kansas City Southern inspectors and a third-party bridge inspector, Osmose Railroad Services."
Although the rules call for inspections there doesn't seem to be a mandate to require repairs based on the findings.

This span starts directly over the walking trail at the Northport levee and leads out over the river. All 4 piers are in similar condition. I can't see the Tuscaloosa side as well as this but assume I will find similar conditions. Lots of rust and obvious cracks in concrete piers poured as long as a century ago.

Along the Northport side leading through the public use area there are steel structures I was told that were designed to stabilize sway and bucking when a train is passes over.  Whatever the reason, ALL of them are infected with the steel cancer called rust. No one has painted them in decades it looks like. The steel has been eaten from about 1 inch in places to less that 1/4 of the original thickness. Most of them were badly rusted on all 4 mounting piers.

Some of the gussets installed to brace corners were rusted all the way through. You can see daylight through a steel plate, it's way too rusty to withstand it's original load capacity. Steel in this condition can't be welded, it must be replaced.

The photo to the left is where it was marked showing a plate rusted all the way through. The paint is so old it has faded and the rust is now bleeding through. While I can't say there have been no inspections, this begs the question of why are they not acting expeditiously to correct these problems obviously to me that are years old?

None of the steel spans show any signs of paint or repairs. Sandblasting these now would blow holes through the rotted steel. What looks to be the original primer paint may be all the paint it has ever seen. 

If this was after 2.5 million dollars worth of repairs it will probably take hundreds of millions to completely fix its true problems. I laughingly made a comment not long ago that to fix the problems they need to start with a bulldozer. That might not really be a joke!

The company maintains that it is safe. 

By whose standards? There are no standards. Does that surprise or alarm anyone outside the industry? It should!

Federal Railway Administration has no authority to even set standards for bridge construction and or repair? The state has no authority, cities or counties are voiceless in the issue even though many of our cities and rural communities are plagued with crumbling infrastructure and ever more dangerous cargoes being shipped through our yards. If the company says it's safe no one in government can challenge because there is no universal standard. I find that absurd since the rail industry is the only industry who can not refuse to haul hazardous cargo according to government rules. That must change if we are ever going to be safe from potential disasters like Lac-Mégantic Canada.

Take oil out of the equation. In my opinion this bridge isn't safe enough to haul sand much less toxic and sometimes deadly products. This isn't the only place where rail conditions are less than acceptable. All of America should be concerned about the safety of living and commuting along these potential bomb corridors.

It's hard for me to believe but here during football games and art shows at Kentuck park people are allowed to park RV's under the bridge and tailgate with the entire family. On July 4th this year I video documented the fun and was alarmed to see a train roll through the fireworks smoke while thousands of people on both sides of the river were under or in very close proximity of this dangerous situation.

When people say "It can't happen here" I respond with LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec, Aliceville Alabama, Casselton ND., Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, Lynchburg Virginia, Mount Carbon WV., and the list goes on and on. Most of the people impacted thought it would never happen to them.

July 4th, 2015 

2 rail cars leaking crude after oil train derails in Montana

From Tuscaloosa News...

2 rail cars leaking crude after oil train derails in Montana

Published: Friday, July 17, 2015 at 4:38 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 17, 2015 at 4:38 a.m.
CULBERTSON, Mont. (AP) — More than 20 cars on an oil train derailed in rural northeastern Montana and at least two of them were leaking crude, authorities said. Some area homes were evacuated.
There were no immediate reports of injury or fire, but of the 21 cars that derailed only two remained upright, Roosevelt County Sheriff Jason Frederick said.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokesman Michael Trevino said the train was pulling 106 loaded crude oil cars when it derailed near Culbertson near the North Dakota border just after 6 p.m. MDT Thursday.
Police, fire and other emergency responders were at the site of the derailment, which forced the closure of U.S. Highway 2, the region's main artery.
Frederick told The Associated Press that crews were not getting too close to the leaking cars until a BNSF hazardous materials team arrives from Texas.
But he said that there was no immediate threat to public safety.
The sheriff didn't know how many homes were evacuated but described area as a rural setting with ranch homes spread apart.
The Billing Gazette reported that the derailment came only about six hours after rail traffic started moving again after another BNSF derailment further west near Fort Kipp on Tuesday.
Rail officials declined to specify if the train was hauling crude from North Dakota's Bakken oil patch, where growing numbers of shipments have raised safety concerns.
Trains hauling crude from the Bakken region have been involved in multiple derailments in recent years, some causing fires.
U.S. transportation officials recently extended an order for railroads to notify states about shipments of hazardous crude oil shipments.
AP writers Thomas Peipert in Denver, Matt Volz in Helena, Mont., and Bob Seavey in Phoenix contributed to this report.