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Earthjustice filed a legal challenge today on behalf of several groups against a dangerous federal rule that would allow trains to travel the country filled with an unprecedented amount of explosive liquefied natural gas.
The liquefied natural gas from just one rail tank car--without even considering a whole train--could be enough to destroy a city.
"It would only take 22 tank cars to hold the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb," said Earthjustice attorney Jordan Luebkemann. "It's unbelievably reckless to discard the critical, long-standing safety measures we have in place to protect the public from this dangerous cargo. That's why we're filing this challenge."
If it escapes containment, liquefied natural gas rapidly expands by 600 times its volume to become a highly flammable gas-and can turn into a "bomb train." In one of the worst examples of the danger, 131 people were killed and a square mile of Cleveland, Ohio, was destroyed when liquefied natural gas escaped from a tank farm, flowed into the city's sewer system and ignited in 1944.
Earthjustice filed today's legal challenge to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's rule on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Clean Air Council, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, the Mountain Watershed Association, and the Sierra Club.
"There's a very good reason liquefied natural gas has never been shipped by rail in this country, and that's because it's wildly unsafe," said Joseph Otis Minott, Executive Director and Chief Counsel of the Clean Air Council. "I don't want these dangerous trains going through my neighborhood, and trust me, you don't either."
Under current federal law, it's considered too dangerous to carry liquefied natural gas in tank cars. It can only be transported by truck and--with special approval by the Federal Railroad Administration--by rail in approved United Nations portable tanks. UN portable tanks are relatively small tanks that can be mounted on top of semi-truck trailer beds or on railcars.
"This reckless plan to move explosive fracked gas by rail poses a dire threat to workers and communities, all for the sake of benefiting the fossil fuel industry," said Sierra Club Senior Attorney Nathan Matthews. "We will not allow this dangerous plan to go unchallenged."
The federal effort to cut critical safeguards for liquefied natural gas started on April 10, 2019, when President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to initiate rulemaking to allow liquefied natural gas transport by rail. Tanker rail cars can hold roughly three times the volume of the UN portable tanks. Other than two isolated experiments on Alaska and Florida rail lines with the UN portable tanks, and one special-permit recently issued by PHMSA for transport between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, rail-based liquefied natural gas shipments have been effectively banned in the U.S., and for good reason.
The proposed rule would allow liquefied natural gas transport by rail in tanker cars that cannot withstand high-speed impacts. These rail cars are untested and unproven.
"Under this new rule, it's only a matter of time before we see an explosion in a major population center," said Emily Jeffers, an attorney with Center for Biological Diversity. "Since the Trump Administration isn't upholding its duty to protect the American people from disaster, we're taking them to court."
Liquefied natural gas can also produce a BLEVE, or "boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion." During a BLEVE, pressurized liquid 'explodes' both chemically and physically (simultaneously vaporizing and combusting). A BLEVE creates three primary dangers: a blast wave, projections of the container fragments, and in the case of flammable vapors, a fireball.
In 2013, a train carrying crude oil-less explosive than liquefied natural gas-derailed in Lac Megantic, Quebec. The resulting fire led to BLEVEs of numerous tank cars, which leveled the town center and killed 47 people. A BLEVE of a liquefied natural gas tank car would potentially produce a fireball up to a mile wide and would be significantly more powerful than what happened in Lac Megantic.
"These railcars are moving bombs," said Becky Ayech, president of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, one of the groups which joined the legal challenge.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's rule proposes no restrictions on the number or distribution of liquefied natural gas tanker cars in a particular train, nor on the routes these trains may travel.
Under the rule, bomb trains would be subject to a voluntary speed limit of up to 50 mph through densely-populated cities. Officials at the Federal Railroad Administration have noted that tank cars are unlikely to survive impacts at even 30 mph.
"Bringing such a dangerous substance through the heavily used railway along the Youghiogheny River (in Pa.) is a disaster waiting to happen due to failing infrastructure, the proximity to an invaluable drinking water source, and the threat to thousands of visitors enjoying Ohiopyle State Park, known as the crown jewel of PA State Parks," said Youghiogheny Riverkeeper Eric Harder. "An explosion or spill would destroy the river and communities that depend on it. Landslides from the rail can be seen while floating down the Lower Yough, one of the busiest sections of whitewater rafting in the US. The steep terrain, combined with the impacts from climate change and outdated infrastructure, are a recipe for destruction."
"When the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration rushed through this reckless proposal to transport liquefied natural gas in railcars that were designed 50 years ago and never tested or used for liquefied natural gas, it was clear this rulemaking presented a threat that must be vigorously challenged," said Tracy Carluccio, Deputy Director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. "It is unconscionable to expose the public and the environment to the risk of a liquefied natural gas catastrophe and the unavoidable consequences of the cradle to grave impacts of fracking, especially considering the unique dangers of liquefied natural gas and the known human health and environmental costs of shale gas development. We join with or partners today to appeal for the protection we need from this wrong-headed federal rulemaking."
Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. We bring about far-reaching change by enforcing and strengthening environmental laws on behalf of hundreds of organizations, coalitions and communities.800-584-6460
"Ordinary people's private financial records are being siphoned indiscriminately into a massive database, with access given to virtually any cop who wants it," said the ACLU's Nathan Freed Wessler.
"These records paint a damning portrait of government overreach."
That's how Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy director of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, and Fikayo Walter-Johnson, a former paralegal with the project, introduced over 200 documents obtained via public records request and released Wednesday on the civil liberties group's website.
The national ACLU and its Arizona arm sought the records after U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) revealed last year that "Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a law enforcement component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was operating an indiscriminate and bulk surveillance program that swept up millions of financial records about Americans."
Following a February 2022 briefing with senior HSI personnel, Wyden wrote a March letter urging DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari to launch a probe into the Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC)—a nonprofit created as a result of a settlement between the Arizona attorney general's office and Western Union, a financial services company that fought in state court against the AG's attempt to obtain money transfer records.
\u201cThis broad collection of our personal data raised privacy concerns, so we submitted a public records request to learn more.\n\nWhat we found is extremely alarming.\u201d— ACLU (@ACLU) 1674045961
As the ACLU released records about TRAC, Wyden on Wednesday shared a new letter requesting that "the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigate the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) relationship" with the Arizona-based clearinghouse.
"My oversight activities over the past year have uncovered troubling information, revealing that the scale of this government surveillance program is far greater than was previously reported," Wyden wrote to DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
"Between October and December of 2022, my office received information from three other money transfer companies—Euronet (RIA Envia), MoneyGram, and Viamericas—which confirmed that they also delivered customer data in bulk to TRAC, in response to legal demands from HSI and other governmental agencies," the senator divulged.
Some customs summonses—a form of subpoena—applied to transfers of $500 or more between any U.S. state and 22 other countries and one U.S. territory. Those summonses were withdrawn "just 10 days after HSI had briefed my staff" in February, Wyden noted, adding that HSI has not yet scheduled his requested follow-up briefing.
\u201c"Hundreds of federal, state and local U.S. law-enforcement agencies have access without court oversight to a database of more than 150M money transfers"\n\nWyden: TRAC is "an all-you-can-eat buffet of Americans\u2019 personal financial data"\n\nhttps://t.co/Z84CnUfnIp\u201d— Alex Gladstein \ud83c\udf0b \u26a1 (@Alex Gladstein \ud83c\udf0b \u26a1) 1674064852
Summarizing the documents acquired by the ACLU, Freed Wessler and Walter-Johnson wrote:
From 2014 to 2021, Arizona attorneys general issued at least 140 administrative subpoenas to money transfer companies, each requesting that the company periodically provide customer transaction records for the next year. Those subpoenas were issued under the same state statute that the Arizona Court of Appeals held in 2006 could not be used for these kinds of indiscriminate requests for money transfer records. This means the Arizona attorney general's office knowingly issued 140 illegal subpoenas to build an invasive data repository.
The documents we obtained reveal the enormous scale of this surveillance program. According to the minutes of TRAC board meetings we obtained, the database of people's money transfer records grew from 75 million records from 14 money service businesses in 2017 to 145 million records from 28 different companies in 2021. By 2021, 12,000 individuals from 600 law enforcement agencies had been provided with direct log-in access to the database. By May 2022, over 700 law enforcement entities had or still have access to the TRAC database, ranging from a sheriff's office in a small Idaho county, to the Los Angeles and New York police departments, to federal law enforcement agencies and military police units.
As Freed Wessler told The Wall Street Journal, which exclusively reported on the materials, "Ordinary people's private financial records are being siphoned indiscriminately into a massive database, with access given to virtually any cop who wants it."
The Journal also spoke with TRAC director Rich Lebel, who "said the program has directly resulted in hundreds of leads and busts involving drug cartels and other criminals seeking to launder money," and "because money services companies don't have the same know-your-customer rules as banks, bulk data needs to be captured to discern patterns of fraud and money laundering."
According to the newspaper:
Mr. Lebel said TRAC has never identified a case in which a law enforcement official has accessed data improperly or the database has been breached by outsiders. The program has seen an increase in use in recent years because of the surging opioid crisis in the U.S., he said.
Law-enforcement agencies use TRAC's data to establish patterns in the flow of funds suspected of being linked to criminal activity, Mr. Lebel said, and the more comprehensive the data, the better the analysis. TRAC manages data that law enforcement provides, he said, and what it is receiving and storing is often in flux.
While declining to discuss TRAC's funding, Mr. Lebel said the nonprofit was originally stood up with money from the Western Union settlement that has since been exhausted. Mr. Wyden and others have said TRAC is federally funded.
Wyden wrote in his letter to Horowitz that "this unorthodox arrangement between state law enforcement, DHS, and DOJ agencies to collect bulk money transfer data raises a number of concerns about surveillance disproportionately affecting low-income, minority, and immigrant communities."
"Members of these communities are more likely to use money transfer services because they are more likely to be unbanked, and therefore unable to send money using electronic checking or international bank wire transfers, which are often cheaper," he explained. "Moreover, money transfer businesses are not subject to the same protections as bank-based transactions under the Right to Financial Privacy Act."
The senator's office said Wednesday that he "is working on legislation to close legal loopholes and ensure people who use money transfer services have the same privacy as those who use banks or money transfer apps."
Freed Wessler and Walter-Johnson also highlighted that "because members of marginalized communities rely heavily on these services rather than traditional banks, the burden of this government surveillance falls disproportionately on those already most vulnerable to law enforcement overreach."
"The government should not be allowed to abuse subpoenas and sweep up millions of records on a huge number of people without any basis for suspicion," the pair argued. "This financial surveillance program is built on repeated violations of the law and must be shut down."
"The campus is thriving, but many faculty are not," said one striking professor. "Management needs to invest in resources that strengthen our entire community."
Hundreds of University of Illinois Chicago faculty members went on strike Tuesday after nine months of deadlocked contract negotiations over pay and student mental health resources.
The approximately 900 members of the UIC United Faculty union have been working without contracts since August. In November, 97% of the 77% of faculty who voted opted to strike. The union announced late Monday that its members would walk off the job the following day after a marathon 12-hour negotiation session failed to produce a deal.
“We started bargaining this contract back in April, and we've made some progress since then. But we have not won yet," UIC United Faculty president Aaron Krall toldBlock Club Chicago.
\u201c"Our students have a lot of needs that aren't being met."\n\nThe University of Illinois Chicago works because the faculty members of @UICUF do. They're on strike for a #FairContractNow to get the resources students and educators need to thrive. #WeLoveUIC\u201d— AFT (@AFT) 1674064832
According to the Chicago Sun-Times:
The union is striking for higher minimum salaries, bigger pay raises that match inflation, mental health support for students, better job security for non-tenure track faculty, learning disability assessments for students, and more.
The UIC administration is offering raises of 17% over four years, averaging 4.25% per year, the union said. That figure is composed of merit raises and other specific pools of raises that do not apply to all union members across the board.
Union leaders called that offer insufficient, and said "seven years of record enrollments and over a billion dollars in unrestricted reserve funds" was "evidence that the university can afford to take demands for faculty raises seriously."
"The campus is thriving, but many faculty are not," UIC United Faculty negotiator Nicole Nguyen said in a statement. "We have spent the past three years scrambling to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, and our whole community—students and faculty—are exhausted. Management needs to invest in resources that strengthen our entire community."
\u201cFaculty with @UICUF are picketing across the UIC campus this morning on Day 1 of their indefinite strike.\n\nThere's a rally at noon with mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson, @AFTunion President Randi Weingarten and more\u201d— Nader Issa (@Nader Issa) 1673977525
Some UIC faculty also say they are working more to help students deal with mental health issues.
"I surveyed my students on the first day of class and asked what they perceived as the biggest challenges in need of intervention. Almost all listed mental health," Michael H. Pasek, an assistant psychology professor at the school, tweeted last week. "It's no wonder faculty... are about to strike over students' mental health resources."
Interim UIC chancellor Javier Reyes and acting provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs Karen Colley called the strike "disappointing" and "not in the best interest of the university or our students."
"UIC values the faculty for their key role in upholding and championing the university's academic mission," Reyes and Colley said in a joint statement. "Based on the shared principles between all involved, the university remains optimistic that a fair and beneficial bargaining agreement can be achieved."
Speaking in support of the striking faculty, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, asserted that "if we care about kids' academic success, if we care about their future, it is vitally important on this campus to have the mental health support and the other diagnostic testing and other support they need to thrive."
One advocate said the rule change "will help tighten the national organic system to ensure organic integrity and better protect American organic farmers and confidence in the organic seal."
Organic farming advocates on Wednesday cheered the United States Department of Agriculture's publication of new regulations aimed at stamping out "organic fraud" in supply chains.
The Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) amendments to the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP)—a federal regulatory program that enforces national standards for organically produced agricultural products—is meant to "strengthen oversight and enforcement of the production, handling, and sale of organic agricultural products" in the United States, according to a federal memo published Wednesday.
"Organic farmers have consistently ranked National Organic Program enforcement and stopping import fraud as a top priority," Kate Mendenhall, executive director of the Organic Farmers Association and an Iowa organic farmer, said in a statement. "U.S. organic farmers and consumers will both benefit from a quick and strong implementation of the SOE rule. We are glad to see it published before the beginning of writing the next farm bill. This is a huge win for organic farmers."
USDA says the new regulations—which will take effect on March 20 and be fully implemented within a year—"protect integrity in the organic supply chain and build consumer and industry trust in the USDA organic label by strengthening organic control systems, improving farm-to-market traceability, and providing robust enforcement of the USDA organic regulations."
\u201cToday, @USDA National Organic Program previewed the Strengthening Organic Enforcement final rule in the Federal Register. This update to #USDAOrganic regulations strengthens oversight & enforcement of the production, handling, & sale of #organic products.\n\nhttps://t.co/EVKH3F3Ajv\u201d— USDA Ag Mktg Service (@USDA Ag Mktg Service) 1674068419
The agency continued:
Topics addressed in this rulemaking include: applicability of the regulations and exemptions from organic certification; National Organic Program Import Certificates; recordkeeping and product traceability; certifying agent personnel qualifications and training; standardized certificates of organic operation; unannounced on-site inspections of certified operations; oversight of certification activities; foreign conformity assessment systems; certification of producer group operations; labeling of nonretail containers; annual update requirements for certified operations; compliance and appeals processes; and calculating organic content of multi-ingredient products.
"Protecting and growing the organic sector and the trusted USDA organic seal is a key part of the USDA Food Systems Transformation initiative," USDA Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Jenny Lester Moffitt said in a statement.
"The Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule is the biggest update to the organic regulations since the original act in 1990, providing a significant increase in oversight and enforcement authority to reinforce the trust of consumers, farmers, and those transitioning to organic production," she added. "This success is another demonstration that USDA fully stands behind the organic brand."
Oren Holle, president of Organic Farmers' Agency for Relationship Marketing, Inc. (OFARM), said that "U.S. organic farmers have desperately needed stronger NOP enforcement on fraud."
"It is encouraging to see that a number of elements that organic grain producer members of OFARM wanted to see included have become a part of the final rule," the Kansas farmer added. "The SOE rule will help tighten the national organic system to ensure organic integrity and better protect American organic farmers and confidence in the organic seal."