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LNG ‘bomb trains’ ignite nightmare scenario for South Florida

Large yellow and orange fireball with black smoke

By Ann Henson Feltgen, FloridaBulldog.org

“If I lived in South Florida near the Florida East Coast Railway corridor, I would move now.”

That statement came from Ron Kaminkow, of Reno, Nev., who is an Amtrak engineer and general secretary for Railroad Workers United.

“If a train derailed and there was an explosion and fire, you’re dead!” he added.

Kaminkow was talking about a nightmare scenario here where so-called “bomb trains” towing liquified natural gas tank cars now run regularly from the Hialeah LNG liquefaction/export plant to PortMiami and Port Everglades. The FEC got the green light last year with a special permit from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Hazardous Material Division.

This was part of a plan enacted in President Donald Trump’s executive order in April allowing LNG to be transported by rail around the country. Trump wanted to clear any barriers that would stop his plan to ramp up the LNG industry and export the fuel to a variety of foreign countries.

Red and gold FEC locomotive with an LNG tender car, a potential 'bomb train.'
A Florida East Coast locomotive with an LNG tender car

LNG is natural gas that has been chilled to a temperature of minus 260 degrees F, which condenses it into a liquid, allowing more gas to be shipped per load. But if the tank is punctured, the LNG would stream out and form a vapor cloud that could explode, perhaps killing and injuring many people in urban areas, such as the east coast of Florida where Florida East Coast Railway runs through the hearts of cities and neighborhoods.

Between 2016 and 2017, Florida East Coast Railway transported more than 201 million cubic feet of LNG from the American LNG Marketing LLC plant in Hialeah to either PortMiami or Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The commodities were headed to Barbados. The Hialeah plant won a special permit to produce LNG, one of only two companies in the United States that received a permit for a pilot program.

‘Bomb trains’ opposition

Kaminkow’s organization is opposed to allowing LNG to be transported by rail as regulations currently stand. Railroad Workers United is an umbrella organization for railroad workers that advocates safety, solidarity, democracy, member education and rank-and-file action of its members. These members also belong to one of the 13 U.S. railroad unions that are organized by craft, such as engineers, signalmen, machinists and dispatchers. Kaminkow would not disclose how many members are in the organization.

Since Trump’s executive order was published, nearly 3,000 comments have been submitted to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Most comments implored the agency to reject the proposal. One letter in opposition came from 28 members of the Washington state chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Some 855 members of PennEnvironment signed their names to oppose transporting LNG by rail. PennEnvironment is a policy and action group with one mission: to build a greener, healthier world.

Many writers expressed concern that the rail tank car standards have not been established for carrying LNG and that the proposed cars have not been adequately tested for hauling LNG.

Gray and white piping at LNG production complex in Hialeah rail yard.
Hialeah Rail Yard’s 100,000-gallon-per-day LNG production facility.

Kaminkow wrote one of those letters opposing the plan. It’s not that he is against transporting the commodity by rail, but wants strong recommendations put in place before LNG is allowed on trains including:

  • LNG shall not be moved by rail unless it is moved in tank cars that have been crash-tested to withstand puncturing. Many rail cars currently in service are not capable of safely transporting.
  • Electrically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) braking should be employed on all unit trains of LNG as a means of possibly preventing a disaster and/or mitigating the extent of the disaster in the event of a derailment/crash. (Trump exempted railroads from having to install ECP.)
  • The longer and heavier the train, the greater the propensity for it to derail, and having derailed the greater chance of disaster. We recommend all such dangerous trains be limited to more than 50 cars.
  • All such trains must have a minimum of at least two persons in the cab of the locomotive to ensure safe movement and delivery of the product and to mitigate against disaster throughout its routing should there be a mishap. (In his executive order, Trump reduced the number of locomotive staff to one per train.)
  • Thorough inspection by trained and certified personnel should be put in place before each run.
  • Prior to movement onto the mainline, trains should have an advance “high-rail” escort service to ensure that the track ahead is clear and in proper condition.
  • Following a string of oil train derailments, fires and explosions, crude oil train speed was limited to 40 mph in urban areas. Unit trains of LNG should likewise be so restricted.

Kaminkow added that trucks should not be carrying LNG on the nation’s highways. It should be transported by train if it can be done safely, he said. He is not optimistic that any of these recommendations will be implemented.

Miami-Dade County’s Emergency Management Captain Anthony Trim oversees planning and overseeing HazMat accidents in the county including at airports and have “the best mitigation agents available to us,” he said.

‘Bomb trains’ exceed firefighting capability?

“We understand the properties of LNG and the way it is transported,” he added. “We have the resources to address many small LNG emergencies.  This includes the ability to deploy a large amount of dry chemical agent amongst other capabilities. However, to be clear, we understand that as with the transport of any large amount of flammable hazardous materials, a catastrophic failure may exceed our firefighting capabilities. 

“Additionally, it is our expectation that the governing bodies of rail transportation will implement and enforce strict standards for container integrity, allowable rail speeds and security measures to minimize the possibility of LNG rail car derailments/breaches.” 

Trim said his crew has had training by “a couple of local LNG distributors and have developed training procedures. We get groups of stations together once or twice a year for training.”

The captain said there have been no emergencies or incidents with LNG trains that travel from the plant in Hialeah to area ports. And, he hopes it stays that way.

Evacuation may be only option

Amtrak engineer Kaminkow, as well as chemical engineering expert Fred Millar and an Oregon firefighter all said there is no way to put out the fires or prevent the explosions should a rail car carrying LNG derail and rupture.

As Kaminkow put it: “There is no way to fight this fire from what I’ve been told.”

Fred Millar, an expert on the hazards of 'bomb trains.'
Fred Millar

According to Millar, “Federal officials admit that mounting an effective emergency response to an LNG release featuring an unquenchably tall and hot fire or a flammable vapor cloud 520 times bigger than the liquid releases is impossible – only evacuation could be attempted.”

Alexander Cox, the Oregon firefighter, said the LNG must remain cold and stable. If the liquid warms, pressure valves vent off the gas.

“But if one of the proposed LNG trains is stopped for any reason – an accident or a landslide – the tanks will continue warming from the heat of the day, pressure will rise and at some point the relief valves will vent off the flammable natural gas,” he explained.

If an LNG tank ruptures the tank will “release a mist of deeply frozen particles that kills everything it touches,” he said. “Then the fire starts and produces a cloud whose outside edges burn. The heat of that fire will rapidly cause the vapor cloud to evaporate and expand.

“Fighting such a fire [even with dry chemicals] is impossible. Evacuation will be the only option,” Cox said, echoing other critics.

More study needed

In May 2018, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration met with industry experts to discuss safe transport of energy products. LNG expert David O. Willauer of Cambridge Systematics, Inc. made a presentation. His findings included the following:

  • LNG transportation has a good safety record, with minimal maritime, facility and motor carrier incidents relative to other flammable liquids.
  • Developing a Quantitative Risk Assessment with risk factors and parameters will help to evaluate the derailment and release probability of LNG rail cars.
  • When the probability of LNG tank car derailment is understood, better decisions can be made regarding the crash worthiness, placement and operation of rail cars.
  • Further study for modeling the probability and consequences of transporting LNG by rail and truck will be beneficial to understanding risks to the public.

Contacted by email twice for comment on his presentation considering recent developments, Willauer did not reply. The company’s director of marketing and communications did reply, saying: “The work we have done is owned by our client; therefore, it is in their purview to provide any insights.”

Stephen Maloney, of Moody’s Analytics, is another expert in LNG. Florida Bulldog sent him a similar email.

This was Maloney’s response: “This is an interesting topic, but not something we care to formally opine about that this time.”

Maloney was on site after a 2014 LNG explosion at a plant near Plymouth, Wash. The blast, according to Reuters, exploded 250-pound pieces of shrapnel, piercing a double-walled 134-foot LNG tank, causing leaks. Five workers were injured.

Everyone within a two-mile radius of the plant was evacuated when officials feared a second more destructive explosion was imminent. That explosion did not occur.

Maloney described the incident as “notable but not particularly severe,” reported Reuters news service.

“When you are dealing with a low frequency event, even for an event of limited severity, one data point has the potential to really change the statistics,” Maloney said.

Later in its story, Reuters asked Henry Willis, director of the RAND Corp’s Homeland Security and Defense Center, if the U.S. should become involved in the LNG industry.  

“It’s not a question of should we or shouldn’t; we have this infrastructure,” he said. “It’s a question of … are we taking the right steps in terms of engineering requirements, oversight, and safety inspections to have confidence we are effectively managing the risk?”

So far, the federal government has shown no indication of adding more regulations for LNG shipments, saying that existing rules are adequate.

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