WEST GLACIER – Less than a mile from Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow’s office is one of America’s fastest growing pipelines for Bakken crude oil: BNSF Railway.
Oil trains have become a common sight in West Glacier and the Flathead Valley, due in large part to the oil boom in North Dakota and Eastern Montana. Recently, BNSF CEO Matt Rose said his 32,000-mile railroad was projected to haul 1 million barrels of oil every day by the end of 2014. According to BNSF, the railroad operates one crude oil train every day through the Flathead Valley to refineries in Washington and Oregon. However, a recent rash of accidents has brought scrutiny to the practice.
Now, the railroad company is preparing a detailed hazardous materials response plan if an oil train were to derail near Glacier National Park. According to spokesperson Matt Jones, the plan will be available to local first responders in the coming weeks.
The increase of oil on the rails worries Mow, who perhaps has more experience than anyone else in the National Park Service with regard to oil spills. Mow was a park ranger and later superintendent at Kenai Fjords National Park that is located less than 100 miles from where the Exxon Valdez ran aground in the Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska on March 24, 1989. The wreck spilled 257,000 barrels of oil, the equivalent of 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and killed thousands of animals, including 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and 22 killer whales. Mow helped investigate the spill for the Park Service and Department of Justice.
Twenty-one years later, Mow was a Department of the Interior incident commander when the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling well sank in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Those two incidents shape Mow’s worldview when it comes to the increase of oil on the tracks near Glacier.
“There would be severe consequences of a derailment near the park, whether it sparks a fire or spills oil,” Mow said. “We need to be prepared for it.”
Moving oil by rail received increased scrutiny after a series of explosive derailments last year. On July 6, an unmanned oil train derailed and exploded in Lac Mégantic, Que., killing 47 people and leveling more than 30 buildings. On Dec. 30, a BNSF oil train ran into a derailed grain train and exploded in Casselton, N.D. No one was injured in the blast, but the town was evacuated because of toxic fumes. Other oil trains have derailed in Alabama, Alberta and New Brunswick.
Mow is concerned about both public safety in the park and the environmental impact of a spill or explosion. Recently, the superintendent met with BNSF officials to voice his concerns.
“We’re not experts in operating railroads, but we want to ask questions and make sure (BNSF) is doing everything they can to lessen the risk,” Mow said.
A lesson from the Exxon Valdez spill that could be applied to today’s situation is the importance of knowing what environmental resources are at a location before an accident happens. Mow said before the spill, the National Park Service had little information about the Kenai Fjords coastline in winter because no one was there to gather information that time of year. Immediately following the spill, the Park Service dispatched rangers and scientist to assess the area before the oil floated ashore. He said that information is valuable when trying to make informed decisions about protecting environmental resources.
One impact of the Exxon Valdez spill was the establishment of community groups who regularly meet to discuss the issues of transporting oil. Mow said something similar is already set up in Northwest Montana, the Great Northern Environmental Stewardship Area. The railroad and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created the GNESA in 1991 to prepare a Habitat Conservation Plan to protect grizzly bears that were attracted to the tracks by grain spilled from passing trains. The GNESA corridor includes the 58 miles of track between East Glacier Park and West Glacier.
The rail line along Glacier’s southern boundary is now the subject of BNSF’s Geographical Response Plan. The document, which will be released to first responders and other stakeholders in the next few weeks, will include a detailed response plan in case an oil train derailed anywhere between East Glacier Park and Stryker. Jones said it would include highly detailed maps of the entire route and strategies on how to deploy containment booms in the Middle Fork of the Flathead River or any other nearby body of water. BNSF has a similar response plan for the Kootenai River Valley between Wolf Creek, on the west side of Flathead Tunnel, and Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
The National Parks Conservation Association’s Michael Jamison said the railroad and the communities it runs through are “at the beginning what promises to be a robust conversation” about the movement of oil by rail. He said the railroad needs to do everything it can to prevent accidents, including improving its track infrastructure and upgrading to modern tank cars.
BNSF recently announced that the railroad would spend $5 billion on improvements in 2014, including $900 million to expand track capacity in the Northern Plains where crude oil shipments are surging. The spending plan is roughly $1 billion higher than 2013.
Mow and Jamison both said BNSF has a positive relationship with the park, which will be important in the months and years ahead.
“We need to have a conversation about how we make it safer and how we plan for the day something bad does happen,” Jamison said. “The good thing is there isn’t a bad guy in this, there’s no pro-accident lobby.”