Bakken Oil Trains: Bombs on Wheels in our Cities

Survey crews in boats look over tanker cars as workers remove damaged tanker cars along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va., Thursday, May 1, 2014. Virginia environmental officials have proposed a $361,000 civil fine against CSX Transportation Inc. as punishment for a 2014 derailment that saw nearly 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil dumped in and around the James River.

Survey crews in boats look over tanker cars as workers remove damaged tanker cars along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va., Thursday, May 1, 2014. Virginia environmental officials have proposed a $361,000 civil fine against CSX Transportation Inc. as punishment for this 2014 derailment that saw nearly 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil dumped in and around the James River.

New Orleans    The Department of Transportation and the Federal Railway Administration along with the government of Canada have issued new rules for oil tankers on trains, strengthening the tank cars and requiring installation of new brakes in coming years.  It is not just because there is so much oil moving from Bakken oil formation underlying Montana, North Dakota, Manitoba and Saskatchewan due to shale oil fracking that they have demanded changes, it’s mainly because Bakken oil is more highly combustible so that derailments and accidents have been like wartime explosions creating destruction, havoc, and deaths when they blow.

So, this is all good, right?

After interviewing Nancy Nusser from Public Citizen’s oil and coal project in Texas on Wade’s World, it was clear to me that this is only half the battle, if that.  Public Citizen and their allies in Texas have been campaigning relentlessly to try and convince the EPA, the DOT, or anyone else they can get to listen about the dangers of Bakken oil trains as bombs on wheels going through our cities without warning.

Forest Ethics makes an interesting case as well.  First they argue that, “Oil train derailments are happening pretty much every single month.Aliceville, Alabama; Casselton, North Dakota; Lynchburg, Virginia…the list goes on to include deadly derailments like the July 2013 Quebec disaster, which took the lives of 47 people.”  More powerfully they produce a map showing the train routes and note that the blast area on either side of the tracks is 1600 meters recommended for evacuations.  The map is a spider web through Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana of course, but really throughout the entire country given the demand for oil.

Public Citizen’s Nusser made the point forcefully using Houston as an example and noting that schools, churches, and hospitals lay along the route of the tracks. They have been demanding that these bomb trains be rerouted outside of dense urban areas to prevent the most catastrophic tragedies.  Since the DOT and others are agreeing that the tank cars have to be beefed up, all of us might have thought that at the least since most of the existing tank cars date to 1970 that they would provide some kind of protection for us in the meantime, but the new regulations are all silent on that issue.  Living three blocks from train tracks and not far from a switching yard, I was following all of this closely.  Speaking of switching yards, working with the Brazos River Bottom Alliance they are also challenging Union Pacific Railways proposal to build a giant rail switching yard in Mumford in that area.  Sure, it’s good that they didn’t propose it for downtown Houston, but surprisingly there seems to be no environmental impact statements required for such a project, even given the potential risks.

The other key demand ignored by the new standards was the common sense suggestion that the railroads, whether UPR or billionaire Warren Buffet’s Burlington Northern, the other big carrier, alert fire departments and other urban first responders so that they are prepared whenever one of these bomb trains rolls through the city.  An early warning system would allow responders to know what the contents were on the train and, though there’s always a hope and prayer that nothing will go awry, such notice would make the response more effective and save lives and property in the event of an accident.  Given how much of railroad operations are now computerized, this would have been a trivial matter to implement, but no such luck.  Nusser was crystal clear that efforts to engage the railroads directly had been exercises in futility.

A little progress is good, but much more needs to be done to keep our cities safe, especially because these train tracks are invariably running through lower income and working neighborhoods where the last thing we need is any more wreck and ruin.


“Freight Train”  Elizabeth Cotton

Justice Delayed, Justice Denied: Katrina and MR-GO

Barges filled with rock are anchored in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet near Bayou La Loutre on Jan. 30, 2009, ready to start blocking the waterway off from the Gulf of Mexico. The work has since been completed, shutting down the channel.

Barges filled with rock are anchored in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet near Bayou La Loutre on Jan. 30, 2009, ready to start blocking the waterway off from the Gulf of Mexico. The work has since been completed, shutting down the channel.

New Orleans        Almost a decade ago, the first reaction after Hurricane Katrina veered slightly to the east of New Orleans was that the city had been spared.  We had ducked the bullet somehow.  Wind and rain were everywhere, trees were falling, the storm was powerful and vicious, but we would be ok.  By the next morning in the aftermath of the storm surge, levees were breached, and 85% of the city was underwater in a catastrophic disaster.

Despite the clarity of scientific and engineering opinion laying the fault on the levee construction and the Corp of Engineers, efforts to win compensation for flooding victims particularly in the lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, independent of FEMA relief funds, have been unsuccessful.  The maze of lawsuits are confusing, but the Times does a good job of explaining their torturous path:

In 2009, a federal judge in New Orleans, Stanwood R. Duval, Jr., ruled that damage related to the MR-GO canal was different because the canal’s purpose was navigation, not flood protection, even though it was line with levees.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [in New Orleans] initially affirmed that decision and then withdrew its decision and overturned Judge Duval.  The Supreme Court declined to take up the case.

This was a distinction with a difference, because though the federal government is normally exempted from claims resulting from failures of flood control projects, Duval’s ruling on the role of navigation in MR-GO was central.  MR-GO stands for the Mississippi River – Gulf Outlet, a more than 75 mile canal used to speed up shipping and barge traffic.

A separate, parallel case on a different legal claim based on the famous “takings” clause of the Fifth Amendment was heard by Judge Susan G. Braden of the US Court of Federal Claims in Washington, and in a huge breakthrough she was now ruled that the government must pay for some of the flooding damage attributed to the storm surge coming from the Gulf of Mexico up through the city from Katrina.   Interestingly, the Judge relied on a 2012 US Supreme Court decision, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission vs. United States where plaintiffs were allowed to recover for property damage due to flooding there.

In a sweet piece of worthless revenge, the Judge also lambasted the US Justice Department for “pursuing a litigation strategy of contesting each and every issue.”  Essentially, after almost a decade the judge sent a message to Justice to stop appealing and get ready to tell the government to pay up.   The judge still has to figure out the award.

Lives were changed forever.  Ten years have gone by.  Will a class action now be filed for the thousands of people in St. Bernard and the lower Ninth Ward, both thinly populated areas still in the early stages of recovery?  Bet on it!  Will any amount of money reclaim the lives lived and time spent in the fight?  Bet against that!

MR-GO is in the process of largely being sealed to secure the city.  The fight to rebuild goes on every day, but justice delayed is still justice denied.  And, you know, as we often say, hey, hold on, it’s only money.  That’s the least of the issues.  Let’s get on with it!


Tie My Hands – Lil Wayne feat. Robin Thicke

Video Created by Rami Hashish.  (Warning . . . Video contains disturbing images of Hurricane Katrina)

The Routinization of Charisma

the_better_angels_coverNew Orleans          Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at the funeral.  Al Sharpton says he’s on his way to visit.  The Mayor, an African-American woman commented about herself, the newly elected prosecutor for Baltimore, also an African-American woman, and the newly confirmed first-ever African-American Attorney-General in the United States, that in so many words if we can’t get justice and peace in a community from three black women at three different levels, then you simply can’t get justice and peace in any community in America.  Uh-oh!

I’m still struck by an expression repeated to me from a discussion of the events of Baltimore at the weekly meeting in New Orleans of the free-floating coalition and forum, Justice and Beyond, that spoke of the “routinization of charisma.”  The phrase was not a complement, nor should it have been, but it speaks to a huge vacuum.  The question as always at the street level is “who has a base?”

Steven Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature, makes the point about violence globally that whether in ancient or modern times the absence of the state leads to a dispersion of power in groups defined by tribe, warlords, and of course gangs.  Reading about the late-in-the-day effort by some ministers to reach out to gangs in Baltimore to try to find common ground to stop the insurrection there, reminded me of that point.  Having the military in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not the same as having a government or state with the consent of the people.  The same can be said of too many cities use of the police as an occupying, militarized force, and it seems in too many places a power unto itself without the support of the community or the effective supervision by the political structure.

It was interesting being in North Carolina recently.  It is frankly surprising to hear of the NAACP as a leader of protests, rather than being part of the infrastructure of continued reform.  Rev. William Barber from Goldsboro, North Carolina, built a base through the Moral Mondays during the legislative sessions there in 2013.  Organizers and leaders were waiting for his call for the current session of the legislature.  Here is charisma that seems to work, starting with a clear base and expanding that base through action with his own and others.

Moving away from the base builds the dangers of the “routinization,” and therefore the dilution of leadership becomes acute.  The vacuum of widespread, membership-based organizations in lower income communities now with the dissolution of ACORN and other grassroots efforts also exacerbates the issues of voice and agency.

One thing we all know, you can’t solve a communities issues outside of the community.  As the mayor of Baltimore has noted, having African-Americans in power makes a difference, but having Obama as president didn’t solve intractable issues in low-and-moderate income urban communities, especially with federal austerity and anti-people Congressional policies and programs, and it won’t bring justice and peace in Baltimore or elsewhere.  It has to come from the bottom and the base has to propel and develop their own leaders, they can’t be grafted onto a community.


Mavis Staples “Eyes On The Prize”

Exploration, Space, Manufactured Homes, and Prison

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 10.39.35 AMNew Orleans   Language is interesting as a key to understanding obviously.  I found myself thinking about that in looking at the way some unions and NGO’s refer to their ventures away from their home countries as “missions.”  I was uneasy at the notion.  I’ve always referred to such visits as explorations, which seems better, but perhaps imperfect as well, and no doubt a product of literally a lifetime of intense reading about explorers since my childhood, particularly those that ventured into the Western United States or traversed the world.

All of which made it interesting for me to read Bold Encounters:  Lessons from Polar and Space Explorations by Jack Stuster recently.  His interest is space travel as a consultant to NASA and the like, but he looks at polar expeditions, Antarctica overwintering, and sea voyages for instruction in what to do and not do with people in confined spaces for extended periods of time. For the armchair adventurers looking at the grand pursuits often obscures the little problems that can undermine great visions, but Stuster gets in the weeds.  Amazing what a problem lint can be on a submarine or space voyage for example!  Not to mention clean clothes, personal hygiene or trivial disagreements when people are locked together in small spaces for extended periods.  In space travel the low estimates for personal space run from 30 cubic feet to 250 cubic feet per person in a 1972 design.  Remember, I said cubic feet, not square feet, so at the high end we are talking about a space about a 6 feet by 6 feet by 6 feet.  For sleeping the space design range seems to be optimally between 63 and 84 cubic feet.  We’re talking about a prison cell in the air!

Looking at how carefully Stuster examined all of these issues and the impact a trip to Mars might have on the crew, mentally, physically, and, even, permanently, sustained pretty much only by the grandness of the enterprise, I couldn’t help thinking about the obvious impact on prisoners in such confinement in any number of articles I had read over the years.  The problems seem so predictable.  I also kept remembering Edward T. Hall’s book, The Silent Language, and his vivid warnings about the impact on humans of living in crowded conditions without personal space, particularly his description of the way the pituitary gland expanded for rats caged with each other and his point that such behavioral aberrations could be expected in crowed urban spaces as well.

Having some experience with my Airstream trailers, I’ve been surprised how well they use space, dividing rooms for sleeping, eating, and cooking in very small segments.  Big doublewides that now call themselves manufactured homes are almost luxurious.  Each side of a New Orleans shotgun double has 700 to 750 square feet.  Many trailers are larger.  Trailers still have a bad rap with some people, but they have been under the same construction specifications as stick-built houses since 1976, and everything being equal, if available, they are among the most affordable housing solutions for families in many areas of the country.  In terms of confinement, they work because people can always go outside.

Whether outer space or the urban built environment, the key is always going to be the ability to “get outside” when you want or need to do so.  Prison, many urban communities, space ships, submarines, and polar stations share some things in common:  people are trapped together.  For some there is no destination, no end to the trip, no way out, no glory road.  There must be, or the consequences are horrible to consider, and lint is the least of the problem.  Scientists and explorers seem to recognize this.  Politicians, police, and many others need to do so as well.


Lakota Thunder – Sitting Bull Memorial Song

Philadelphia is ‘Very Angry’ with Comcast

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 5.23.00 PMNew Orleans       Just to be clear.  It’s not just me, ACORN International, Local 100 United Labor Unions, and the Arkansas Community Organizations who are ripping mad at Comcast for high rates, bad service, and making a cruel joke out of the “internet essentials” program rather than using it to help lower income families crawl over the digital divide:  it’s all of Philly, too!  Our partner, Action United, showed up and stood up at the first hearing in Philly on whether or not the Comcast franchise agreement should be renewed or renegotiated in Comcast’s home city.  They kicked it, as you can read from the Philadelphia Inquirer story.  Let’s see if Comcast finally hears what we’re saying.  Or, not?






Phila. is ‘very angry’ with Comcast

Bob Fernandez, Inquirer Staff Writer 

Posted: Wednesday, April 29, 2015, 1:08 AM

City residents complained Tuesday about everything from Comcast Corp.’s troubled customer service to TV rates and corporate taxes during Philadelphia’s first public hearings on the cable giant’s request to renew its citywide franchise agreements.

“We here in Philadelphia are very angry with you,” Monica Rozin said at the mostly calm noon hearing in the basement of a public library off Rittenhouse Square. “Technology gets less expensive and you get more so.”

In the late afternoon, about 40 people held a rally outside South Philadelphia High School – the site of a second hearing – calling for Comcast to “pay its fair share” of taxes, expand a program for affordable Internet service, and freeze rates.

Activists also called for the company to continue funding PhillyCAM – public-access television channels and a studio.

The rally was organized by the nonprofit Media Mobilizing Project, a frequent Comcast critic, and joined by other organizations involved with disabled individuals, workers’ rights, and low-income housing.

“Remember, this is a deal,” Lance Haver, the city’s director of civic engagement, said at the 30-minute rally. “Comcast wants our rights-of-way and rights to our public spaces, and we have every right to demand what we want.”

About 60 people attended the hearing at Southern High. Many of them also attended the rally.

The hearings are part of a renewal process that began in 2013 and has gathered some speed this month with Mayor Nutter’s release of a 571-page consultant survey of the city’s cable- and Internet-related needs.

The four cable franchise agreements between Comcast and the city government expire in August, September, and October.

“We love Philadelphia, and value the strong partnership we have with the city and its residents, and are extremely proud of the world-class services we deliver here, as well as the significant benefits that are afforded by our franchise,” Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander said Tuesday.

“In Philadelphia, Comcast has provided more than $163 million in franchise fees in the past 10 years and delivers 12 PEG [public, educational, and government access] channels for community use, along with substantial financial support,” he added.

Alexander said Comcast, which employs 8,000 workers at its headquarters and other facilities in the city, looks to have “a comprehensive and productive dialogue with city officials.”

Emotions ran high at times at the noon meeting, attended by about 40 people. But for the most part, the speakers were respectful, laughing and clapping.

Mike Miller, a 20-year city resident, feared that his Social Security number might fall into the wrong hands. “I would like them to destroy the Social Security numbers in their files and replace them with non-identifying numbers,” he said.

Oren Panitch, a Northern Liberties resident and Web developer, said, “We should be the shining example of what [Comcast] can bring to the rest of the country, but instead they want to charge more.”

Rosemary Devers of South Philadelphia said, “I’ve got a number of complaints.” One of them, she said, was talking with Comcast customer call representatives in the Philippines when she has a problem.

The next hearing is scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday at the MAST Community Charter School at 1800 Byberry St. Another will be at noon Thursday at the Community Center at Visitation, 2646 Kensington Ave.

The last two are at 5 p.m. Thursday at Martin Luther King High School, 6100 Stenton Ave., and noon Saturday at Bible Way Baptist Church, 1323 N. 52d St.

The Fine Line Between Insurrection and Riot in Baltimore

26.siNew Orleans   Can we even keep count of the places that police have proven recently that they are out of control in recent months and targeting lower income and African-American communities in our cities?  Certainly there is Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, North Charleston, South Carolina, and now Baltimore, but that list is not exhaustive.  And, in most of those cases the police walked away with hardly a hand slap, essentially killing with impunity behind the shield of the law.

Is this a new problem?  Hardly.   Remember, I call New Orleans home where juries and judges are still trying fix the punishment to the crimes of police killing unarmed African-Americans fleeing the flood waters on Katrina on the Danzinger Bridge.   That’s the topline crime, but the daily problems with police are the bottom line, including the fact that the New Orleans police department is now under Justice Department supervision.  At every annual, big Year End/ Year Begin meeting we would have in New Orleans, we would ask the New Orleans staff to give a standard lecture to the organizers.  They were told that we knew of course that they would visit the French Quarter, but even when, and rarely if, they saw the police hassling or beating someone, they must NOT interfere or they would be arrested.  Organizers being organizers, they heard, but never heeded the warning, so invariably on one or more of the mornings, local staff would be calling lawyers and judges to try to spring an organizer who simply couldn’t walk away from a casual street beating being administered by a cop silently, so was pulled in.

Watkins, an author and native Baltimorean, writing an op-ed in The New York Times after going through a litany of his own experience over a lifetime with police harassment and violence, says it plainly:

The young uprisers of Baltimore have been paying attention to the peaceful protests in Sanford, Florida, Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, only to be let down by the end result, over and over again.  We are all starting to believe that holding hands, following pastors and peaceful protests are pointless.  The only option is to rise up, and force Mayor Rawlings-Blake to make what should be an easy choice:  Stop protecting the livelihoods of the cops who killed Freddie Gray, or watch Baltimore burn to the ground.

There is no question that mayors pay a price in getting their police under control, look at the blowback on Mayor DeBlasio as a case study.  Many, like New Orleans Mayor Landrieu seem to barely pretend they can control their police force and hold their breath that “it doesn’t happen here.”  Too many hold out hope for anointed community leaders or the “names” that parachute in to walk the headlines more than the streets in what a local activist tellingly called the “routinization of charisma,” which is obviously a contradiction in terms and no antidote for either anger or insurrection.

But, that’s the job, and it has to be done.As the Pretenders sang, “there’s a fine line between love and hate.”  When the police protest marches stops and the bricks fly at the blue line and riot gear in situations like these, our cities are the Gaza Strip, and this is insurrection. An uprising is different than a riot.  The anger is held in common, but the targeting goes from the specific to the general, from the police to the nearest whatever happens to be at hand that answers the red hot temper and frustration built to burning rage.

The answer to the innocent victims and collateral damage is not pointed fingers, but firm hands finally taking control of the police and changing their role as occupiers of an alien, unknown power.  Riots peter out like forest fires in the rain, but insurrections remain hot coals capable of quick conflagration until all of the kindling is picked up and put away.

The word is out on the streets now, and it will be heard and won’t be silenced by prayer, protests, or editorials.  Cities need to either control their police and finally change them from a hostile invading force to a community asset or count the days until the fire next time is not later or somewhere else, but here and now.


KRS One “Sound of Da Police” ‌‌