Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Flawed State Dept. report twists rail safety stats

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Proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline exulted while statisticians expressed dismay at the U.S. State Department’s dramatic assertion the week of Jan. 26 that failure to approve the proposed pipeline could cause an additional six persons per year to be killed by crude oil trains.

Canada’s pro-government National Post trumpeted: “Building Keystone oil pipeline would save six lives a year, U.S. State Department report says.” A columnist for the same newspaper gloated: “The language in the report is admirably clear-cut and leaves little room for creative spinning. Take, for example, the conclusion of the section dealing with the likelihood that a rise in rail shipments would escalate substantially. The surge, it says, ‘would result in an estimated 49 additional injuries and six additional fatalities… compared to one additional injury and no fatalities for the proposed [pipeline] project.’”

If true, the prospect of six deaths and 49 injuries caused by additional crude oil trains filling in for an absent Keystone XL would surely give pause to even the pipeline’s most ardent opponents. Fortunately, except for the professional reputations of the oil-industry contractors who wrote the State Department report, the projection is simply bogus. The forecast of additional injuries and fatalities is based on a flawed data series, and a set of counterfactual assumptions that would surely fail a Statistics 101 mid-term.

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“The average reader might walk away with a misleading impression,” stated Peter French, economics analyst for the Association of American Railroads. “These estimates of additional deaths and injuries are not from fiery crude oil accidents and explosions like we saw in Lac-Mégantic. They would be estimates based solely on the increase in rail traffic and train-miles to haul the crude oil.”

First, the projection of rail injuries and deaths is based on all Class I tonnage—not crude oil alone, nor even all hazmat movements. The same logic would apply to any increase in railway tonnage, be it crude oil or orange juice.

Slide04Second, nearly all of the projected deaths would be of trespassers and grade-crossing users, with a tiny fraction being rail workers, and none attributable to crude oil cargo. A full 62% of the 706 U.S. rail fatalities in 2012 were trespassers hit by trains, with another 33% being grade-crossing users.

Third, there is no positive historical correlation of railway tonnage to trespasser deaths. In fact, such fatalities have been dropping for well over a century, even as rail tonnage rises. “Over the past few decades, rail traffic has increased, but the count of trespasser fatalities has fluctuated in the 400 to 500 range, with little or no trend,” said AAR’s French.

Fourth, the criteria for reporting rail and pipeline related deaths and injuries are so unalike that a valid comparison is impossible. Reported rail injuries and fatalities include every employee hurt while on duty, even if they just twisted a knee when they were miles away from any train. Injuries to pipeline workers, on the other hand, are reported only if they coincide with a spill of at least five gallons. Yet the report treats the rail vs. pipeline statistics as though they compare apples to apples. They don’t, and the resulting smell reminds me of the malodorous fruit, the Malaysian durian.

Fifth . . . well, you get the idea.

Perhaps the report’s contorted math will be scrutinized in the conflict-of-interest investigation of its authors currently being conducted by the State Department’s Inspector General. The contractor that produced the report, Environmental Resources Management (ERM), stands accused by 25 Democratic senators and congressmen of “lying to federal officials about its ties to TransCanada and over a dozen oil companies with a direct stake in whether or not Keystone XL gets approved.”

Should the Inspector General agree that ERM did indeed fib about its associations with TransCanada Pipelines, then, the signing congressmen say, the entire report should be tossed.

The Lac-Mégantic catastrophe of last July was excluded from the ERM report because it was not within the study’s geographical and temporal terms of reference. But even if those victims were counted, they would not compare in any way to the six additional deaths projected by the state department contractors. None of the Lac-Mégantic victims were trespassers, crossing runners, or railway workers. The deaths in Quebec were caused by multiple detonations of a cargo that had been misrepresented as merely flammable, and loaded into tank cars many times judged to be not-fit-for-purpose by accident investigators. The explosion of illegally classified cargo, not the runaway derailment, was the cause of the Lac-Mégantic fatalities.

So what to make, then, of those projected six extra deaths imagined in the mooted diversion of future crude shipments from Keystone XL to rail? In 2012, a full 95% of all railroad fatalities were trespassers or crossing users. The state department projection is based on the assumption that such deaths are a lock-step function of railroad tonnage, though the historical record shows just the opposite.

Trespasser deaths peaked at 5.59 per million train-miles in 1903. They declined steadily to 0.59 per million train-miles in 2012—a rate 10 times lower, even as tonnage grew exponentially over that period.

Aside from inverting reality in trespassing fatalities, the ERM analysts exploit some of society’s most unfortunate to make their questionable case. A substantial body of research demonstrates that most trespassing fatalities involve persons who are seriously impaired by alcohol or drugs. “Undocumented suicides” make up another substantial proportion, while the third category includes reckless behavior such as walking between the rails while wearing headphones.

Close to 80% of the 128 railroad trespassers killed in North Carolina between 1990 and 1994 were intoxicated, with an average blood alcohol level 2.5 times the legal driving limit. Between 20% and 50% of trespasser deaths are probably suicides, not ruled as such by coroners because of the absence of a note or other expression of intent. Projecting additional trespassing and suicide deaths among society’s disadvantaged, and attributing them to the crude-by rail, is as heartless as it is disingenuous.

If the other 7,000 pages of the Keystone XL environmental assessment are as intellectually rigorous and ethically sound as its equation of lineside deaths with CBR train tonnage, then, indeed, a do-over is in order.

David Thomas, Contributing Editor

David Thomas is a reporter who has covered government and society since graduating from Ottawa’s Carleton University with degrees in political science and journalism. He has written for National Geographic, Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, The Gazette, and The Canadian Press news agency from postings in Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, and London, England. “Railroading has been a personal fascination since a childhood timed fortunately enough to witness the golden years of steam on the late-to-dieselize Canadian National and Canadian Pacific,” he says.