Exploding oil trains are a hot topic in the United States and Canada, spurred by a recent spate of accidents and a prediction by the U.S. Department of Transportation last year that there are many more to come – 10 a year over the next two decades.
The oil boom in North Dakota and insufficient pipeline capacity have put a record number of cars hauling crude on the tracks, each capable of carrying more than 30,000 gallons of highly combustible oil when fully loaded. For a 100-car train that’s 3 million gallons.
A sampling of recent developments:
• An association of Washington Fire Chiefs requested Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway provide worst-case scenarios for potential crude oil train emergencies in selected areas of the state. They also want to see evidence of the levels of catastrophic insurance the railroad has purchased; comprehensive emergency response plans for specific locations in the state; and route analysis documentation and route selection results.
“Normally, we would be able to assess the hazard through right-to-know and other public documents," a letter to BNSF said. "However, your industry has sought and gained exemptions to these sunshine laws. This exemption does not mean that your industry is exempt from taking reasonable steps to ensure catastrophic incidents do not occur.”
• Seattle vendors and former Mayor Mike McGinn joined forces at a news conference March 20 to highlight the potential destruction from an explosive oil train accident under Pike Place Market. The BNSF tunnel that runs under downtown Seattle passes under a corner of the market. An accident threatens the safety of 10 million annual visitors and the iconic market itself, the vendors said.
BNSF said it's going to great lengths to make the tunnel safer, including spending $10 million in recent years to replace the tracks.
McGinn called the railway’s assurances “absolutely not sufficient for safety.”
• Four Democratic senators introduced an act Wednesday that would immediately bar the use of older, riskier tankers and set standards for volatility of gases in tank cars so they don’t explode as easily. The Crude-By-Rule Safety Act would set standards for new tankers that require thicker shells, thermal protection and pressure relief valves.
“Every new derailment increases the urgency with which we need to act,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said. “Communities in Washington state and across the nation see hundreds of these oil tank cars pass through each week. This legislation will help reduce the risk of explosion in accidents, take unsafe tank cars off the tracks, and ensure first responders have the equipment they need.”
• The American Petroleum Institute and the Association of American Railroads announced at a teleconference Wednesday they will jointly fund additional training for local first responders along railroad tracks to deal with crude shipment accidents.
There are initial plans for sessions in 15 states, beginning this weekend in Nebraska and Florida. The AAR last year dedicated more than $5 million to training at its Security and Emergency Response Training Center near Pueblo, Colorado.
• Noting that a fiery oil train wreck in downtown Spokane could lead to the evacuation of 20,000 people, city officials requested and on Thursday were granted a seat at the table in discussions to open an oil terminal in Vancouver, Washington.
BNSF supports the terminal and said it’s “more than prepared” to handle the increased loads through northern Montana, Idaho and Washington.
“Our northern route is perfectly positioned geographically as we run through the Bakken region and to the Northwest destination points,” BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas told the Spokesman-Review’s Nicholas Deshais in early March.
Jerry White, leader of the Spokane Riverkeeper, was not convinced. He referred to the fiery Feb. 16 of a BNSF train in West Virginia.
“When I was watching that disaster, something struck me,” White told Deshais. “The fire chief in that little town said they were just backing off and letting that oil burn. I projected that onto Spokane. Can you imagine this happening in the downtown corridor and the fire crews saying the only thing we can do is back off and let them burn?”
• A state official warned Minnesotans living along tracks carrying North Dakota crude oil to prepare themselves for an emergency.
“People need to take some personal awareness of what’s around them,” Kevin Reed of the Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division told Don Davis of the Forum News Service. “How do I get out of the way before the fire department gets here?”
Last week, the Minnesota Department of Transportation reported that 326,170 Minnesotans live within half a mile of railroad tracks with trains carrying Bakken oil. A state report indicated an average of 6.3 oil trains a day cross Minnesota.
Gov. Mark Dayton said those numbers highlight the need for safety improvements on the railroads.
“It just underscores the risk factor and why it’s imperative that we do everything we possibly can to prevent these derailments and the catastrophes that can result from them,” Dayton said.
• The U.S. Department of Energy is studying crude volatility and whether it should be treated to remove dissolved gases before transport, an official testified Wednesday at a House Appropriations subcommittee budget hearing.
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., asked why the more volatile crude transported from the Bakken couldn’t be stabilized before being loaded into tank cars in the same way crude from Texas is stabilized.
Timothy Butters, acting administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said that’s what the study seeks to determine. Results should be in by fall.