Nation roundup for December 31


Man, 74, held in deaths of tenants

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A 74-year-old Maine man was charged in the shooting deaths of two tenants inside an apartment he rented out at his home, possibly over a dispute about where they parked their cars during a snowstorm, state police said Sunday.

James Pak was arrested at about 10 p.m. Saturday following a standoff at his suburban neighborhood home in Biddeford, about 15 miles south of Portland, police said. He is charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of Derrick Thompson, 19, and Thompson’s girlfriend, 18-year-old Alivia Welch.

Thompson’s mother, Susan Johnson, 44, called police to report the shootings at about 7 p.m. She and her 6-year-old son also live in the apartment, which is attached to the main house where Pak lived.

Before the shootings, Biddeford police were called to Pak’s home regarding a dispute between Pak and his tenants over their cars being parked in his driveway during the snowstorm, said state police spokesman Steve McCausland. Biddeford banned street parking during the night so city crews could plow the streets.

Minutes after officers left the home, they received the call reporting the shootings. Upon their return, Biddeford police rescued Johnson and her young son, and Pak retreated to his part of the house, where he lived with his wife, McCausland said.

Pak’s wife left the home, and he surrendered hours later after talking to police negotiators, said McCausland. A gun was found in the house.

Johnson was being treated for a gunshot wound at a Portland hospital, officials said. Her younger son, Brayden, was not hurt.

Detectives are investigating whether the violence stemmed from a landlord-tenant dispute, McCausland said.

2nd snowstorm hits the Northeast

NEW YORK (AP) — A widespread winter storm dumped snow over the Northeast and parts of Ohio on Saturday, just days after the regions were hit by another storm moving from the nation’s midsection.

The National Weather Service expected up to a foot of snow in parts of southern New England, with the heaviest snowfall possibly in Providence, R.I., and Boston, which declared parking bans to allow snow removal vehicles to clean the streets. Winter storm warnings were in effect in parts of those states and in Connecticut.

New York City and Philadelphia saw a mix of rain and snow as the storm moved in from the west. In Ohio, Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati saw about 2 to 5 inches of snow by Saturday afternoon, the National Weather Service said.

“Expect those accumulations to kind of work their way northeastward through much of New York state and much of New England,” weather service meteorologist Brian Hurley said.

Drivers throughout the regions were warned to be cautious. Officials lowered the speed limit on much of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, about 300 miles from the Ohio state line to east-central Pennsylvania, from 65 mph to 45 mph.

About 20 vehicles piled up in a storm-related chain-reaction crash on Interstate 93 in New Hampton, N.H., police said, and five people were injured.

In Albany, N.Y., a regional jet skidded into a snow bank at the airport and became stuck, temporarily stranding passengers en route to Chicago. The 66 passengers and four crew members aboard the GoJet Airlines flight, operating as United Express, were put on a bus and sent back to the airport.

Psychiatric test in subway death

NEW YORK (AP) — A woman suspected in the death of an immigrant who was pushed off a New York City subway platform has been ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

Erika Menendez, 31, was arraigned Saturday night on a charge of murder as a hate crime. She had told police she has hated Muslims since Sept. 11 and thought the victim was one. Judge Gia Morris ordered that Menendez be held without bail and be given a mental health exam.

Menendez is charged in the death of Sunando Sen, who was crushed by a train in Queens on Thursday night. Friends and co-workers said Sen, a 46-year-old Indian immigrant, was Hindu.

“I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up,” Menendez told police, according to the district attorney’s office.

“The defendant is accused of committing what is every subway commuter’s worst nightmare,” Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said.

Menendez was incoherent at her arraignment in Queens criminal court, at one point laughing so hard that the judge told her defense lawyer, “You’re going to have to have your client stop laughing.”

Menendez admitted shoving Sen, who was pushed from behind, authorities said.

Trains carry more oil across nation

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Energy companies behind the oil boom on the Northern Plains are increasingly turning to an industrial-age workhorse — the locomotive — to move their crude to refineries across the U.S., as plans for new pipelines stall and existing lines can’t keep up with demand.

Delivering oil thousands of miles by rail from the heartland to refineries on the East, West and Gulf coasts costs more, but it can mean increased profits — up to $10 or more a barrel — because of higher oil prices on the coasts. That works out to about $700,000 per train.

The parade of mile-long trains carrying hazardous material out of North Dakota and Montana and across the country has experts and federal regulators concerned. Rail transport is less safe than pipelines, they say, and the proliferation of oil trains raises the risk of a major derailment and spill.

Since 2009, the number of train cars carrying crude hauled by major railroads has jumped from about 10,000 a year to a projected 200,000 in 2012. Much of that has been in the Northern Plains’ Bakken crude patch, but companies say oil trains are rolling or will be soon from Texas, Colorado and western Canada.

“This is all occurring very rapidly, and history teaches that when those things happen, unfortunately, the next thing that is going to occur would be some sort of disaster,” said Jim Hall, a transportation consultant and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Rail companies said the industry places a priority on safety and has invested heavily in track upgrades, provided emergency training and taken other measures to guard against accidents. There have been no major oil train derailments from the Bakken, according to federal regulators.

Union Pacific Railroad CEO Jack Koraleski said hauling oil out of places like North Dakota will be a long-term business for railroads because trains are faster than pipelines, reliable and offer a variety of destinations.

“The railroads are looking at this as a unique opportunity, a game-changing opportunity for their business,” said Jeffery Elliot, a rail expert with the New York-based consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

BNSF Railway Co., the prime player in the Bakken, has bolstered its oil train capacity to a million barrels a day and expects that figure to increase further. To accommodate the growth, in part, the railroad is sinking $197 million into track upgrades and other improvements in Montana and North Dakota.

BNSF is also increasing train sizes, from 100 oil cars per train to as many as 118.

Larger trains are harder to control, and that increases the chances of something going wrong, safety experts said. State and local emergency officials worry about a derailment in a population center or an environmentally sensitive area such as a river crossing.

Rail accidents occur 34 times more frequently than pipeline ones for every ton of crude or other hazardous material shipped comparable distances, according to a recent study by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. The Association of American Railroads contends the study was flawed but acknowledges the likelihood of a rail accident is double or triple the chance of a pipeline problem.

The environmental fears carry an ironic twist: Oil trains are gaining popularity in part because of a shortage of pipeline capacity — a problem that has been worsened by environmental opposition to such projects as TransCanada’s stalled Keystone XL pipeline. That project would carry Bakken and Canadian crude to the Gulf of Mexico.

Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, described rail as “the greater of two evils” because trains pass through cities, over waterways and through wetlands that pipelines can be built to avoid.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen. It’s going to be a mess and we don’t know where that mess is going to be,” Schafer said.

For oil companies, the embrace of rail is a matter of expediency. Oil-loading rail terminals can be built in a matter of months, versus three to five years for pipelines to clear regulatory hurdles and be put into service, said Justin Kringstad of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority. Although more pipelines are in the works, Kringstad said moving oil by rail will continue.

The surge comes at the right time for railroads: Coal shipments — a mainstay of the rail industry — have suffered because of competition from cheap natural gas.

In the eastern U.S., CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads haven’t seen as much growth because oil from the Marcellus Shale area of Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York is close enough to refineries that trucks haul the crude.

Yet BNSF is beginning to haul Bakken crude east to Chicago, where it hands off the tank cars to CSX or Norfolk Southern for delivery to Eastern refineries. It has also sent oil to the West Coast, a trend that could increase if Alaska crude production falters, as some industry observers are predicting.

The growth will require significant upgrades to already congested rail lines, industry analysts said.

Overall, crude oil shipments still represent less than 1 percent of all carloads. And there are far more dangerous materials aboard the nation’s trains, including explosives, poisonous gases and other industrial chemicals.

But emergency officials are increasingly wary of major accidents involving oil trains, which carry far more cargo than some other hazardous-material trains.

While oil is not as volatile as some other products, a rupture of just one car can spill 20,000 to 30,000 gallons, said Sheldon Lustig, a rail expert who consults with local governments on accidents and hazardous materials.

Recognizing the risks, Houston-based Musket Corp., an operator of oil train terminals in North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Oklahoma, has donated spill equipment and provided training to fire officials.

“You want to be a good steward in that community,” said Musket managing director JP Fjeld-Hansen.

Federal Railroad Administration officials said they have coordinated hazardous-material training seminars and sought more law enforcement patrols for rail crossings to increase safety.

Federal law requires railroads to select hazardous-material routes after analyzing the potential for accidents in heavily populated areas and environmentally sensitive spots. Those analyses are confidential for security reasons.

Lustig said the railroads have considerable sway over the process.

“Under federal guidelines, the railroad makes the analysis, the railroad decides what they want to do, and the railroad does it,” he said. “There is no public accountability.”

 

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