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.”
Bay Area Residents Resist Crude-by-Rail as Accidents Rise
Molly Samuel, KQED Science | February 17, 2014
The city of Pittsburg, 20 miles east of Oakland, is considering approving a new oil terminal to supply crude to Bay Area refineries. The oil would come via ship, pipeline and railroad. But there have been a number of recent accidents around the United States involving rail shipments of crude oil, and some locals are concerned about the safety of the project.
‘A Dynamite Factory in Our Backyard’
On a Saturday morning in January, about 150 people gathered at a playground in Pittsburg. Greg Osorio, a local pastor stepped up to a microphone and got the rally started.
“They want to put a dynamite factory in our backyard with crude oil bombs,” he said. “Right next to housing. Turn around and look at that.”
A cluster of faded yellow metal oil tanks sit just behind the park. Each one is the size of a house. Right now they’re empty, and have been for 15 years. But they soon could be filled with crude oil.
Riding the Crude-by-Rail Boom
WesPac, an Irvine-based company, is proposing to re-open and upgrade the tanks. The property, which includes a power plant that’s still in use, once belonged to PG&E and is now owned by an energy company called NRG. WesPac wants to take over the tanks to bring in oil, store it and redistribute it to Bay Area refineries to make into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other products. The $200 million project would be able to store up to 375,000 barrels of oil in 17 tanks.
“It’s consistent with the types of operations that are going on in that area already,” said Art Diefenbach, the project manager for WesPac. This is an existing facility in a traditionally industrial town, he says, so the project makes sense here. After the tanks were decommissioned, neighborhoods grew up around them, but Diefenbach says that won’t present a problem.
“We’ll be installing additional safety equipment and noise reduction equipment and air pollution control equipment so that it’s actually going to be better than it is today,” he said.
Better, he means, than sitting empty. Plus, the project would create up to 40 permanent jobs, though those wouldn’t be guaranteed to Pittsburg residents.
But community members aren’t just concerned about the oil in the tanks; they’re also concerned about the trains that would deliver it.
In 2008, there was no oil coming into California by rail. Last year in December alone, trains carried more than a million barrels into the state.
“The problem that we have is, there’s not a terribly good infrastructure to get oil to the coasts where most of the refining and frankly most of the customers are, for that energy, located,” he said.
Without pipelines, oil companies are turning to trains. While crude delivered by rail accounts for a little less than two percent of all the oil California uses now, that may be changing. WesPac is one of six crude-by-rail projects being considered in the state. If they all get approved, rail could provide a quarter or more of California’s oil, according to the California Energy Commission.
More Trains, More Accidents
But more crude-by-rail has led to more crude-by-rail accidents. Last summer in Quebec, 47 people died when an oil train exploded. In the past four months, there have been derailments in Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Alabama and New Brunswick, Canada.
Pittsburg is a city that’s weathered industrial catastrophes before. In 1944, 320 people were killed when two Navy munitions ships in nearby Port Chicago exploded.
Andres Soto says he thinks oil companies aren’t being transparent about safety concerns.
“They don’t want to admit the risk,” he said. “Because if they did, the community would say, ‘Not in my backyard.’ And the people have a right to say that.”
There have been some responses: The National Transportation Safety Board is making recommendations to improve crude-by-rail safety; Governor Jerry Brown’s budget proposal boosts funding for the agency that cleans up oil spills; Attorney General Kamala Harris wrote a letter to the Pittsburg planning department, expressing her concerns about the WesPac project, particularly the impacts on air quality and the risk of accidents.
Tupper Hull says the companies he works with are aware of the safety concerns, and he expects there will be more regulations.
“We’re in one of these eras where the market has brought us good news, and now we’re catching up on the regulatory and the infrastructure side.” Good news, he said, because this is domestic oil—rather than from overseas—and it’s cheap.
Lyana Monterrey, a Pittsburg resident and one of the people leading the charge against the project, isn’t buying it.
“Not here,” she said. “Not next to a community. You don’t sacrifice people, community for your profits. That’s wrong. That’s an injustice.”
The city of Pittsburg is currently considering the project. The city council is expected to decide on its fate soon.
This a running list of bomb train derailments in North America in 2014.
By “bomb train,” I mean those trains hauling one or more cars of crude oil, fuel oil, ethanol, methanol, propane, butane, liquified natural gas (methane), ammonium nitrate or high-nitrogen fertilizer, phosphoric acid or some other highly volatile or especially toxic or corrosive cargo. (The list does not include coal train derailments, which, of course, are a whole nuther problem.) I’ve also indicated whether a detonation resulted.
So far in North America in 2014, we have seen an average of one bomb train derailment every 5 days ….
1/07 – Plaster Rock, NB (6 days from Jan. 1), detonation
1/20 – Philadelphia, PA (13 days later)
1/26 – Edmundston, NB (6 days later)
1/28 – Molino, FL (2 days later)
1/31 – New Augusta, MS (3 days later)
2/06 – Sedalia, CO (6 days later)
2/11 – South Shore, KY and Jacksonville, FL (5 days later)