Big River Magazine
Mississippi River stories and news

September-October 2014

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From September-October 2014 Big River

Frac Sand Update

 Washington, D.C. — Personal respirators alone don’t protect workers exposed to crystalline silica at hydraulic fracturing sites. They face a distinct health hazard, even if they wear the required masks, according to a July report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH tested air samples at 11 frac wells in five states to measure the silica workers were exposed to. At these sites, 47 percent of the samples exceeded the OSHA Permissible Exposure Limit and 79 percent exceeded the NIOSH Recommended Exposure Limit.
Fracking sites release dust in a number of ways, as the sand is transferred from one place to another. Inhaling crystalline silica dust can cause silicosis, and various other lung, kidney and autoimmune diseases.
NIOSH worked with industry partners to come up with a list of ways to reduce exposure to silica dust. First on the list was to use a safer non-silica proppant instead of “frac sand” where possible. (ISHN, the NIOSH newsletter, 7-16-14)

• Pittsburgh — Gas and oil companies have been using a lot more sand at each hydraulic fracturing well, at least they have in Pennsylvania. Use has doubled over the past eight to 10 months, said a representative of Baker Hughes, a Texas-based firm. The sand is used to prop open new fissures in slate to let gas flow out. Some operators believe that the more sand you pump in, the more gas and oil you get out. Wells are now pumped with seven to 11 million pounds of sand at each one, an increase that may or may not create better, longer-lasting wells.
According to PacWest Consulting Partners, a market-intelligence firm, the Marcellus Shale fields in Pennsylvania will use more than 13 billion pounds of sand this year, up from 9.6 billion last year. Estimates for 2015 predict 15.8 billion pounds of sand will be used.
More sand means higher costs for both sand and transportation of sand, and individual operators have to decide whether it’s worth the cost, but transportation is everybody’s problem. There’s a nationwide traffic jam of trains and trucks moving sand from sand mines to processing sites to wells. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 6-19-14)

• Winona, Minn. — In Winona, 115 area residents filed a petition for an environmental review of a local sand shipping company, charging that its request to increase the quantity of sand shipped monthly could release more ambient silica dust near the harbor, which is not being monitored.
Local shipping company CD Corp. wants a yearly cap, not a monthly one, on the number of barges of sand it can ship from the commercial harbor. Right now the company is limited to 48 barges per month. In high water years, like this one, or years with bad weather that slows shipping, that means there’s no way to make up for lost time.
The state Environmental Quality Board accepted the petition and passed it to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which will decide whether a review is needed. State laws require a review if a company processes more than 200,000 tons of silica sand a year. Last year CD Corp shipped about 232,000 tons of sand. (Winona Daily News, 7-9-14, 8-2-14)

Oil Train Update

People who watch trains along the river know there are a lot more oil trains running this year than last year. The numbers verify that. Last year, railroads transported about 434,000 carloads of oil in the United States. This year the total is expected to reach 650,000 carloads, according to the Congressional Research Service. That’s up from 9,500 in 2008.
Data provided by Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) to Wisconsin state emergency officials show that from 26 to 43 oil trains move through the counties along the river every week. That is one oil train every 3.9 to 6.5 hours, but to many it seems more like one every five minutes. BNSF moves the majority of its oil trains along the west edge of the state, near the river. (La Crosse Tribune, 7-9-14)

• The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued new safety rules in July calling for DOT-111 railcars to be phased out by 2018. Tank cars used for ethanol, crude oil and other petroleum products must have thicker steel shielding and more crash-resistant valves. Older models that cannot be refitted with these features would have to be retired or used for less hazardous materials.
The manufacturing logistics were not clear, as manufacturers ­currently produce just 35,000 new cars a year and there’s a backlog of 52,000 orders for new cars, according to the Railway Supply Institute.
The DOT’s new rules also require rail companies to notify state emergency responders about train traffic, reduce speed limits and pick the safest route. (Washington Times, 8-12-14; New York Times, 7-23-14)

• Oil from North Dakota is competing for rail space with coal from Wyoming and Montana, and coal-fired power plants such as Dairyland Power’s plants in Wisconsin and Xcel Energy’s in Minnesota, among others’, have watched their coal stockpiles dwindle. Some are generating power at reduced levels to conserve coal. After Dairyland said its Genoa, Wis., power plant might have to close down this winter for want of coal, BNSF said it would increase its shipments of coal to an Iowa dock, so it can be shipped by barge to Genoa before ice freezes in the river this winter. The Genoa plant needs between 165 and 195 days of coal stockpiled in order to make it through the winter, and it all has to come by barge.
To speed things up, BNSF is buying more locomotives, hiring more train crews and spending $5 billion for maintenance and expansion. (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 8-4-14)

• Most other rail users are also having trouble with rail traffic.
Farmers are angry over long delays in shipping corn, soybeans and other products by train. Ethanol producers, too, are irked by shipping slowdowns.
Amtrak schedules are constantly disrupted, especially the Empire Builder, which runs between the Pacific Northwest and Chicago, and is regularly delayed in North Dakota, where many new fracking wells are in production and being drilled.


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