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Local View: Consider rail as safe alternative to Keystone XL

Local View: Consider rail as safe alternative to Keystone XL

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The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that would be used to transport crude oil extracted from oil shale in Alberta, Canada, to Louisiana for refining is a genuine threat to the Ogallala Aquifer and should not be approved.

The danger of pipeline rupture or spill from some other casualty is real, dangerous and may be deadly. It still has not been determined if the extraction process uses benzine (a known cause of cancer), which remains in the crude following the extraction of the oil. A spill in Michigan of crude from oil shale resulted in significant releases of benzine into the water and soil.

Thus far, opponents of the pipeline have urged that the pipeline be detoured around the aquifer and have advanced no alternatives to building the pipeline itself. This leaves Nebraska with a dangerous pipeline that has the potential of polluting other groundwater and contaminating soil along its path.

There is a very real alternative to pipeline transportation of the crude. It is via Tanktrain. Tanktrain, devised by GATX (with headquarters in Chicago), is proven technology that has been used successfully in a number of applications throughout the United States. Tanktrain uses special railroad tank cars operating over existing railroad lines using normal freight locomotives for power. The tank cars are linked by hoses, which permit the entire train to be loaded and unloaded from one terminal along the train. The train can be loaded and unloaded at up to 3,000 gallons per minute. A 90-car Tanktrain takes less than five hours to load or unload. Multiple trains can be operated on a schedule in shuttle fashion so that as a train completes loading, another empty train is staged at the loading point to take its place and commence receiving crude oil.

Tanktrain has many advantages over the pipeline. First, it operates on existing rail lines and would require only a loading terminal and an unloading terminal to commence operations. The tank cars are already in existence, unlike the pipeline, and could be used right away. GATX and XL could enter into a contract specifically reserving a certain number of cars or trains in dedicated service to make the run.

Leasing Tanktrain would save the $2 million per mile estimated cost of the pipeline. This would lease a lot of Tanktrains for a very long time. The Tanktrains would be monitored by live human beings in real time -- the train crews, dispatchers and trackside workers.

In the unlikely event of a mishap, the railroad personnel are in instant radio or cellphone communication with existing Hazmat teams, who are quick responders. Nebraska rural fire departments report that the railroads have trained them about tank cars and how to deal with spills, but the pipeline companies have offered no such training. The fire departments are clueless about pipeline ruptures.

Pipeline response time to spills have been glacial, allowing thousands of gallons of leakage before someone can shut off the pumps at the nearest pumping station. Until the pumps stop, the leakage continues. There are far more railroad employees per mile of track than pipeline workers. Many pipeline pumping stations have no attendants present and rely solely on instruments. The nearest pipeline employee may be miles and hours away from a pipeline breach.

A pipeline once in place cannot be easily moved. Tanktrain can be rerouted around hazards and problems that develop onto other rail routes, giving this mode a flexibility a pipeline system cannot match.

This pipeline is all about energy. Why the crude can't be refined in Canada and transported to destinations in the United States by existing pipelines escapes me. Crude is thick; it requires a tremendous quantity of energy to move the sludge through a pipeline. Tanktrain avoids this wasteful drain of energy.

Let's give Tanktrain a hard look as an alternative to the pipeline. Let's let Hillary Rodham Clinton and her bunch know an alternative exists. We just might not need to have any new pipelines built across Nebraska in view of our fine existing rail network.

Richard Schmeling is a retired lawyer and transportation expert.


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