Firefighters get specialized training to fight crude oil tank car fires

Repost from The Albany Times Union [Editor: We can expect that this kind of training is being initiated all across North America, given the proliferation of derailments and explosions.  Has the Benicia Fire Department sought training?  Other Bay Area fire departments?  How about a regional training event?  – RS]

Firefighters train as crude oil surges through Albany port

Controlled blaze gives firefighters practice for a real oil event at port
By Brian Nearing  |  May 8, 2014
An instructor, right, leads firefighter trainees during a live fire training drill on best practices for the suppression of ignitable liquids such as crude oil in the event of a flammable liquid emergency at the Port of Albany Wednesday May 7, 2014, in Albany, NY.  (John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union) Photo: John Carl D'Annibale / 00026798AAn instructor, right, leads firefighter trainees during a live fire training drill on best practices for the suppression of ignitable liquids such as crude oil in the event of a flammable liquid emergency at the Port of Albany Wednesday May 7, 2014, in Albany, NY. (John Carl D’Annibale / Times Union)

To practice fighting towering flames that could erupt should crude oil-laden trains ever derail and explode, firefighters in the Port of Albany on Wednesday practiced on controlled blazes created on something not unlike a giant barbecue grill.

In a parking lot off South Pearl Street, about two dozen firefighters spent several hours dragging hoses to spray special foam on fires fueled by propane lines from a tank truck parked nearby, and that burned both in vapors bubbling in a water-filled pan on the ground and from a valve atop an adapted tractor-trailer.

Flames would shoot up, teams of firefighters would creep up to spray foam, flames would be extinguished and then the next team would repeat the exercise.

The state Division of Homeland Security ran the two-day drill, which is part of routine training done statewide for local fire departments and companies with their own firefighting crews, said James Cable, chief of the division’s Special Operations Branch.

Later Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring all railroads operating trains hauling large loads of highly flammable Bakken crude oil — like those into Albany’s port — to notify state emergency response officials about routes and operation of rail traffic through their states.

The rule requires rail companies that have trains containing more than one million gallons of North Dakota Bakken crude — equivalent to about 35 tanker cars — to notify state officials on the routes of those trains.

Also the rules asks oil shippers to phase out use of the oldest, least-safe tankers, known as DOT-111s, as soon as is practical, without setting any deadline.

Applauded by U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer, who last week called for such notification, and Kirsten Gillibrand, the federal announcement came after the local safety drill was finished. Before the drill, Albany Deputy Fire Chief Frank Nerney Jr. called the drill “an extension of our regular training to understand the use of foams to fight flammable liquids. We take part in this drill twice a year.”

Nerney said training has focused on crews at the South End firehouse, which is closest to the Port of Albany, where trains carrying Bakken crude oil are arriving daily. Crude shipments have skyrocketed in the last two years. Derailments and massive fires in Virginia, North Dakota, Alabama and Quebec in the last year have raised mounting safety concerns.

In some of the infernos, flames were up to 200 feet high. Wednesday’s flames were much smaller, appearing to shoot five feet from the water-filled pan and 20 or 30 feet from the tractor trailer. Crews wearing protective clothing were able to walk within a few feet of the flames, which were still hot enough to be felt by reporters standing back about 40 yards.

New recruits from the Albany department, as well as its five battalion chiefs, took part in the drill, as well as members from fire departments from Schuyler Heights, Maplewood and Schenectady and the SABIC chemical plant in Glenmont.

Cable said the principles of the propane-based training system apply to crude oil fires or other “ignitable liquids.” The chemical foam is mixed with water under pressure, and the foam is sprayed over a fire. It acts like a blanket, sealing off the surface of the burning liquid from air, which extinguishes the blaze. The foam is consumed gradually by fire, and so must be applied enough to create a barrier; otherwise, gaps will allow air to continue to feed the blaze.

The state has run the training course for local departments for three years, said Cable. “We are looking to increase this training, as more communities are asking for it.”

    Latest derailment: Estevan, Saskatchewan – no explosion

    Repost from The Estevan Mercury
    [Editor: Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada is located approximately 10 miles north of the Canada–North Dakota border.  – RS]

    Train derailment in Estevan

    May 8, 2014  |  by Chad Saxon

    Estevan, Saskatchewan derailment smAlthough few details are known at this point, the City of Estevan says there is no danger to the public following a train derailment this morning.

    Four tanker cars containing crude oil left the track at around 11 a.m. The incident occurred east of the CP Rail oil transloading facility and just north of the Devonian industrial subdivision.

    During a media update at City Hall, Emergency Measures Coordinator Helen Fornwald confirmed the tankers were loaded and that were “no fires or leaks at this time.”

    Fornwald said Transport Canada is en route to Estevan and will be conducting an investigation into the derailment.

    The City is asking that the public stay away from the scene and allow emergency services and CP Rail clear access.

    A cause for the derailment is not known at this time. It occurred on a low speed section of track and was not directly at the transloading facility which has been a source of concern and controversy since it opened in late 2011.

    Fornwald added two businesses adjacent to the tracks were evacuated immediately after the derailment while Fire Rescue Services and CP personnel assessed the scene.

    “Estevan Fire Services went on the scene and determined the priority level and once it was identified there were no leaks it was downgraded to let’s get this situation under control,” Fornwald said. “We put our EMO team on standby.”

    This is the first derailment in Estevan since 2004. In that case, rail cars containing ammonia derailed and forced an evacuation of homes in the immediate area.

      Bloomberg: Feds announce weak “emergency order”

      Repost from Bloomberg Business Week

      The Government Takes a Weak Stab at Making Oil Trains Safer

      By Matthew Philips  |  May 08, 2014

      On Wednesday, a week after a train loaded with crude oil from North Dakota exploded in downtown Lynchburg, Va., dumping 30,000 gallons of oil into the James River, the Department of Transportation announced two moves to try to keep this from happening so frequently. It’s doubtful that either will make much of a difference in preventing what’s become a major safety hazard in the U.S.

      Under a new “emergency order,” the DOT said it’s now going to require any railroad that ships a large amount of crude to tell state emergency responders what it’s up to. That includes telling them how much crude it’s hauling and the exact route it intends to take. Railroads also now have to provide local emergency responders with contact information of at least one person who’s familiar with the load, in case, you know the local fire chief needs to find out what the heck’s inside that overturned tank car that just unleashed a 400-foot fireball.

      This emergency order applies to any train carrying more than 1 million gallons of crude specifically from the Bakken region of North Dakota. That’s essentially all the trains hauling crude across the U.S. right now. Since there aren’t enough pipelines connecting the oil fields in North Dakota, most of the nearly 1 million barrels the state produces leaves every day by train. It takes about 35 tank cars to haul 1 million gallons. Most of these oil trains are 100 cars long and stretch over a mile.

      The reason this applies only to Bakken crude is twofold. First, that’s most of what’s being hauled. Second, the oil coming out of the Bakken is unlike any other kind that’s out there. It’s light, sweet, and superflammable, with high levels of propane and methane. That makes it almost impossible for local first responders to put out the fires that erupt when these trains derail. Sometimes, their only recourse is to evacuate the area and watch the tank cars burn.

      The amount of oil moving by train each month has risen by nearly 400 percent since 2009Data: American Association of RailroadsThe amount of oil moving by train each month has risen by nearly 400 percent since 2009

      On top of the emergency order, the DOT on Wednesday issued a “safety advisory,” in which it “strongly urg[ed]” the oil companies shipping Bakken crude on trains to use the best tank cars they can. This advisory came from the Federal Railroad Administration, a division of DOT. How that differs from the organization’s normal position on safety isn’t clear. But it seems not unlike the FAA, after a rash of plane crashes, “strongly urging” airlines to buy the safest kind of planes they can and stop using old, outclassed ones.

      The old, outclassed ones in this case is the DOT-111 model of tank car that’s been involved in most of the crude train explosions, including the one last summer in Quebec that killed 47 people. Although it’s widely deemed unfit for transporting crude, the DOT-111 is used to move the vast majority of oil sent by train in the U.S. It’s also the same classification of tank car that’s used to haul agricultural commodities, such as corn or soybeans.

      According to the investment bank Cowen Group, about 100,000 DOT-111 tank cars in the U.S. are used to haul flammables such as crude and ethanol. About three-quarters of them may require retrofitting or a gradual phaseout. While some energy companies, such as Tesoro, are already choosing to phase out DOT-111s in their North Dakota operations, most companies are sticking with them until they’re forced to change. A complicating factor is that it’s not even clear, given how volatile Bakken crude is, whether using safer, better-reinforced cars would even help keep a derailed train from exploding.

      The DOT’s safety advisory urging the use of better tank cars is a weaker step than what Canadian regulators did two weeks ago, when they aggressively moved to phase out all DOT-111s from hauling crude within three years. In an e-mail, a DOT spokesperson wrote that the agency is moving as quickly as it can to update its tank car regulations and that the safety advisory is a step it can take immediately. Last week, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx sent to the White House a list of options on how to make crude-by-rail safer.

       
      Philips is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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