Executive Dow Constantine says a training exercise helps but the region needs a reduction or elimination of the dangerous trains.
August 7, 2014
Five rail cars carrying petroleum crude oil derail and catch fire near Boeing Field, about five miles south of downtown Seattle. That was the scenario during a tabletop exercise King County held Tuesday.
The planning exercise took place less than two weeks after three tank cars carrying highly flammable crude oil from North Dakota derailed in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood. That incident was relatively benign. None of the cars leaked or caught fire. The mock scenario discussed on Tuesday was designed to be far more precarious.
“This is an emerging public safety threat,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine at a press conference on Wednesday. “And we need to have our emergency preparedness folks really up to speed on it and well-coordinated. And that’s what yesterday’s exercise was all about.”
The exercise highlighted some of the complications responders might face when dealing with burning tank cars of crude oil, such as monitoring toxic smoke, transporting evacuated people and delivering information to the public.
Between eight and 13 trains operated by BNSF Railway Co. pass through King County each week carrying crude oil, according to information the railroad released in June to the Washington Military Department.
A local fire chief involved in the exercise acknowledged on Wednesday that responders would most likely have to let some of the fuel burn off if one of those trains crashed and five tank cars were ablaze.
The cars commonly used to transport petroleum crude oil have a capacity of about 30,000 gallons apiece. In past wrecks, un-breached cars, heated by surrounding flames, have ruptured in dramatic explosions.
“We’ll want to probably suppress the fire enough to assess the integrity and exposure to the other tank cars. We’d certainly want to minimize life risks,” said Mark Chubb, Fire Chief of King County Fire District 20.
“It’s unusual for all five tank cars to breach,” he also said.
Battling flames would not be the only problem that burning tank cars of crude oil would present for responders.
“We have to be mindful of the impact of the smoke column on aviation,” Chubb said. He also noted that a large oil train fire could create problems on Interstate 5, even if the smoke and flames do not reach the highway. “The distraction of an event of this scale,” he said, “is going to be highly disruptive.”
Chubb added: “After you grapple with the fact that it’s a fire and it’s going to go on a while, it’s all about logistics.”
Walt Hubbard, director the King County Office of Emergency Management, viewed Tuesday’s exercise as helpful, because it got people from different agencies together in the same place, talking about how they would coordinate and communicate if there were a serious crude oil train accident.
In addition to emergency responders, staff from local transportation and public health departments attended, as did officials from federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Representatives from BNSF were also on hand. The company operated the train that derailed in Interbay.
For Hubbard, having the railroad representatives at the exercise was important.
“We want to keep them engaged,” he said. Hubbard specifically pointed to dialogue that took place between BNSF representatives and fire officials about what kinds of equipment and people the railroad could deploy after an accident.
“That was a very good exchange,” he said.
Another topic that came up during the exercise was evacuations. If a rail car of crude oil is on fire, U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines recommend that responders consider evacuating people within a half-mile of the accident scene.
The risk of an explosion would be one immediate reason to evacuate the area around the fire. But Chubb, the King County fire chief, also noted that toxic smoke is a hazard, and said that responders would consult with officials from public health agencies and the EPA when considering whether to tell people to leave the area.
Repost from Seattle PI.com [Editor: This is a challenging think-piece for opponents of crude by rail. Personally, I believe that sit-ins, songs and resolutions have a place in a multi-faceted approach to organizing against big oil and rail. But Connelly has a point – we need to think hard and long on serious strategies for success. – RS]
Publicity-stunt sit-ins, council resolutions won’t stop oil trains
Posted on August 1, 2014 | By Joel Connelly
In watching the Seattle City Council’s ritual of passing whereas-heavy, symbolic resolutions over the years, an observer can come way believing the council’s prime purpose in life is to send demonstrators home happy.
The response to oil trains, arriving in every greater numbers, is the latest example of Seattle’s insular, echo chamber politics. Its product is meaningless symbolism.
Councilman Mike O’Brien gins up an oil train resolution, much as he did on Occupy Seattle. Council member Kshama Sawant shows up at the BNSF tracks for her demonstration of the day. A Sawant mini-me running for the Legislature gets arrested. The news is telephoned to a Stranger reporter who is supporting the candidate.
Will any of this impact the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad? Will it influence the business of giant refiners like BP and Tesoro, increasingly dependent on rail shipments of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota?
Of course not. The carbon economy has the Interstate Commerce Act on its side. The U.S. Department of Transportation seems intent on accommodating shippers in its rule-making. Refineries support 2,000-plus jobs in northern Puget Sound.
For instance, the USDOT’s proposed safety rules tout a “two year” required phase out of old, explosion-prone tanker cars. When you read the fine print, phase out period begins in September 2015.
Here is how critics can effectively put the heat on, and deal their way into the safety debate. The recent and ongoing coal port/coal train battle is a model for dealing with obtuse agencies and potentially more lethal cargoes:
– Mass support, not just driblets: Somewhere in Seattle, somebody (usually Kshama Sawant) is demonstrating every day. Protests pant after a moment on the evening TV news. Often, they leave as much impression as footprints in the snow.
By contrast, a well-planned event can signal (to politicians) that a movement has staying power. It registered when 395 people packed a Bellingham City Club meeting for a debate on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal. Sponsors had appears to have it greased. A bigger impression was made 2,500 people who showed up for a federal-state “scoping” hearing in Seattle.
– An agenda, not 1960′s slogans: Coalport/coal train port critics asked for an independent, comprehensive look at impacts trains will have across Washington. They wanted environmental studies to look at climate consequences of providing economical fuel to keep aging Chinese power plants in operation.
It is absurd, for instance, for the Army Corps of Engineers to limit “transportation” to the seven-mile spur line from Custer to Cherry Point in Whatcom County. Big coal, railroads and construction unions were flummoxed by a reasonable demand.
– A real coalition, not just a paper list: Seattle “coalitions” are populated by the usual suspects. A real movement gets a cross-section of recruits. Montana ranchers are not keen to see their land torn up. Firefighters worry that long trains will block waterfront access, and (with oil) that they’ll be left holding the bag when a 1960′s-vintage tanker car blows up.
The proposed Pebble Mine, near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, shows REAL reach-out. Opposition began with greens, quickly embraced Alaska’s commercial and sport fisheries, gained backing from the powerful Bristol Bay Native Corp., expanded to Washington fishermen, and found roles for restaurant chefs and major jewelry companies.
– Political work horses, not show horses: Behind all the posturing on coal ports, state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, put together letters to the feds and state laying out — precisely — potential impacts that must be known. The letters helped shape the charge given by Gov. Jay Inslee to the Department of Ecology.
With oil trains, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., recently cornered — and treed — USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx at a recent hearing. She delivered a message that MUST be driven home. Faux safety measures won’t cut it. Cantwell and Carlyle don’t go for whereas clauses.
– Fact and evidence, not just hyperbole: Exaggeration is a basic activist weapon, broadly deployed. It gets people riled, but has limited staying power. What’s needed are activist-experts who learn the stuff, and steep themselves in places to be impacted.
A lighter touch should be put on heavy handed manipulation of the media. Certain web sites and outlets can be counted on to spout the party line. Others aren’t content to simply be fed.
The carbon economy is coming our way — big time — with proposed coal export terminals, a big terminal to receive oil trains (in Vancouver, Wash.), coal and oil trains taking over the rails, plus pipeline terminals and oil export ports in British Columbia.
It’s not going to be turned back by sit-ins or Council resolutions in a city with less than 10 percent of Washington’s population.
Seattle politics is sandlot. What we’re facing, and trying to influence, is a big-league challenge.
Repost from Boulder Weekly [Editor: A good summary on the various states’ responses to weak new federal emergency regulations, and the oil and rail industries’ resistance to same. – RS]
Oil Boom, Part II: How and why railroads keep oil train information from communities
By Matt Cortina, Thursday, July 31,2014
Last week’s Boulder Weekly cover story “Oil Boom” covered the proliferation of trains carrying volatile crude oil in outdated oil tanks through the hearts of Longmont, Boulder and Louisville. With industry estimates of an oil boom in the nearby Niobrara shale formation, Boulder County residents can expect that the risk of a potential explosion from an oil train will increase over the next decade.
On the day that story was published, documents were leaked from the state of Washington’s Military Department that showed the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. railroad companies like Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and Union Pacific pressured states to keep information about oil trains concealed from the public.
And so this brief part II to “Oil Boom” will take a look at why railroads are not required to tell citizens about oil trains, why this information needs to be a secret at all and how railroads are now working to enact soft oil transportation standards in order to save billions in revenue.
• • • •
Railroad companies have never been required to tell citizens, municipalities or states the contents of their train cars. Then, in May, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered railroad companies to disclose to state emergency responders how many trains carrying one million gallons or more of crude oil from the Bakken shale region in North Dakota were coming through that state. This came after nine oil trains, many carrying Bakken crude oil, exploded or derailed in the last 12 months in the U.S. and Canada.
In response, railroad companies asked states to sign a confidentiality request form that would keep that information from being passed on to the public. Some states like California, New Jersey and Virginia signed the agreement. Colorado did not sign the agreement, but did ultimately decide to keep the information confidential.
Conversely, some states, such as Washington, North Dakota and Wisconsin, decided to make the information public. This was not without contention from the rail companies. When Montana said it would do the same, BNSF promptly wrote to the state that it would consider legal action to keep the information hidden.
And in Washington, one state official wrote in an email (obtained by DeSmogBlog), “looks like UP is trying to put the burden on us vis-à-vis information transfer on oil trains,” noting that Union Pacific’s confidentiality request claimed states were requesting information about Bakken crude oil shipments, instead of that railroads are now required to share that information.
All this fuss from railroad companies concerns just one mandate on one very large amount of oil from one of several drilling areas nationwide. And that information doesn’t need to be sent until 30 days after trains pass through the state.
This mandate is effectively irrele vant for Boulder County. Crude oil shipped through the county comes from the Niobrara in Northern Colorado. Transporting this crude, like everything that’s not one million gallons of Bakken crude, does not require notification even though it can still overheat and explode and it is still shipped in outdated, dangerous tanks.
What is relevant is that the Niobrara shale region has been deemed by the oil and gas industry as the “next Bakken” region, so legislation and precedent for that region will affect how crude oil is transported through Boulder County in the future.
Now, railroads can keep the majority of oil train information hidden from the public because they have help from federal and state officials.
For instance, in ordering railroads to share Bakken crude oil train information with local emergency responders, the U.S. Department of Transportation also encouraged states to keep that information from the public in a FAQ that accompanied the emergency order.
Mark Davis, Union Pacific regional media director, says the issue is that railroads could face “security” issues if conservative monthly data about crude oil transportation is made public.
“A lot of that is the historic security concerns that were started following 9/11,” says Davis. “I know that is something that on the security side, that from a federal standpoint, they’re taking a look at and reviewing that process.”
Davis added that he was “not sure” if any actual threats to Union Pacific oil trains have been recorded, but that the security detail on crude oil transport via rail is “massive” and involves national, state and local authorities.
According to Dave Hard, director of the Colorado Division of Emergency Management, the state of Colorado is keeping what little oil train information it does receive hidden from the public not because of security concerns but because it is “business confidential.”
“The original guidance we received from the Department of Transportation […] made it clear that at the time, the federal D.O.T. considered it security sensitive and business confidential,” Hard says.
Hard says his department and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Department of Public Safety then reviewed the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) standards and agreed that crude oil shipments were still “not subject to public disclosure.”
“They still maintain business confidentiality viewpoints. The state is still honoring that [all oil train information] is not for public disclosure, it is for the purposes of preparing [emergency response personnel],” Hard says.
Railroads are also subject to the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which requires them to report the transport of hazardous materials to local and state emergency responders. But, for some reason, petroleum products including crude oil are exempt from this mandate.
The bottom line is that railroads are privately owned and not required to notify anyone of the contents of their trains. They are, at least, required to make their transport of volatile materials safe.
The Department of Transportation recently issued safety recommendations for railroads carrying crude oil. These recommendations included updated tank cars, new routing systems and reducing the speed of oil tank cars.
But railroads like BNSF, Union Pacific and CSX said implementing these safety measures would be too costly.
In a presentation to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which will amend and codify the safety standards introduced by the Department of Transportation, presenters for the railroads laid out the costs of implementing moderate safety measures.
First, railroads would pay $2.8 billion for capital improvements to railways across the country. Reducing the speed of trains would call for oil companies to build more tankers to the tune of $1.5 billion in order to maintain supply quotas. Reducing train speed would also cost the railroads themselves about $630 million per year because they’d have to pay for additional crew, fuel costs and “lost productivity of track maintenance workers.”
Train speed and outdated tank cars are by far the most common cause of derailments and explosions. Tank cars are not built for modern crude oil and train speed has many times caused modern volatile crude oil to overheat and explode.
BNSF went on to say that implementing these safety measures would take about four years and would result in “the immediate loss of existing business” and growth would be stifled.
Railroad officials and lobbyists are currently working beside federal lawmakers to carve out the new safety and notification rules for crude oil by rail transport. Initial regulations could come as soon as this year.
Repost from Boulder Weekly [Editor – Significant quote: “The library and the post office. A dozen schools. Hundreds of homes. Parks. Every brewery (oh god). Ten gas stations. The wastewater treatment facility. It can all go up in flames at any minute — and that’s just in Longmont. All you’ll hear is a whistle and a boom.” Along with Part II, this article covers many of the most important issues on the crude by rail boom. – RS]
Oil Boom, Part I: Boulder County’s growing risk from trains hauling undeclared explosive materials
By Matt Cortina, Thursday, July 24,2014
The library and the post office. A dozen schools. Hundreds of homes. Parks. Every brewery (oh god). Ten gas stations. The wastewater treatment facility. It can all go up in flames at any minute — and that’s just in Longmont. All you’ll hear is a whistle and a boom.
The number of trains carrying crude oil and other volatile materials through Boulder County is increasing, and with it comes the increased risk of a catastrophic explosion — from derailments, from outdated storage tanks and from increased rail traffic.
Perhaps the most startling fact is this: The amount of crude oil on U.S. railways has increased 3,500 percent in the last five years — from 325 million gallons in 2009 to 12 billion gallons in 2013. This is because there is more crude oil to ship out of the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and — more relevant to Boulder County — the Niobrara shale formation in northern Colorado and Wyoming. In order to meet this demand, railroads and oil distributors are using outdated tank cars (at least more than half of all oil is shipped in these cars) that are not built to carry the more volatile oil that is found in the region and that can explode — and have exploded — from simply overheating.
And yet railroad companies are not required to tell citizens, local or state governments the contents of their cars. It is proclaimed both a matter of national security and industry competitive secrets.
“Railroads are certainly a private industry,” says Greg Stasinos, of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “That’s something that they can keep within their rights” — even though those same trains are now affecting a much greater area than the rails they ride on.
In the last 12 months alone, nine trains carrying crude oil derailed or exploded in the U.S. and Canada, including a May 10 derailment outside of Greeley that spilled 65,000 gallons of oil. The worst incident by far was the July 6, 2013 derailment in Lac- Mégantic, Quebec. An unattended 72-car freight train carrying Bakken oil ran loose and exploded in the small town’s center. Forty-two people were killed and half the town’s buildings were destroyed.
In the U.S., a 90-car train derailed in western Alabama last November, shooting flames 300 feet into the sky and emptying nearly all of its 2.9 million gallons of crude oil into a swamp.
The area is still being cleaned.
Fortunately, most of those crashes occurred in unpopulated areas — the vast majority of track is located outside of city centers. However, increased output from the nearby Niobrara shale formation will send more oil trains through Boulder County in coming years — the Oil and Gas Journal (an industry magazine) says the Niobrara is emerging and “companies have been busy leasing land for future drilling. It has been compared by some to the Bakken shale formation farther to the north.”
Two rail companies operate the majority of railroads in Colorado: Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). Union Pacific does not own rail in Boulder County; instead, they have track heading north out of Denver that bends east through Greeley and up to Cheyenne. BNSF, however, has track that runs northwest from Denver through downtown Louisville and Longmont (and east Boulder) before heading through Fort Collins on its way to Cheyenne.
If a drilling company contracts with BNSF, that cargo — if it’s headed through the Front Range — can only use BNSF rail; that is, it can only come through Boulder County.
Between four and 10 trains carrying Niobrara crude oil will pass through Colorado every week, says Andy Williams of BNSF. Many of those oil trains will pass along the track in Boulder County, according to Boulder Deputy Fire Chief Mike Calderazzo. (A map of Colorado track rights shows that the only full BNSF track in and out of the state runs north and south, including the stretch through Boulder County.) Routes vary greatly, Williams says, depending on where the shipper directs BNSF to deliver materials. Trains that carry crude oil, however, are likely coming from a Niobrara drilling site to a refinery on the Gulf Coast (Colorado is home to only one crude oil refinery, in Commerce City).
It should be noted that railroads, as common carriers, are required under federal law to ship hazardous materials like crude oil. They do not own many of the tank cars (less than 1 percent, according to the Association of American Railroads), or their contents, but they are responsible for its safetransport.
Williams says that BNSF does not make information available to the public about what trains are carrying and where they are going. They do, on occasion, notify local emergency responders like Calderazzo, the Boulder Fire Department and local hazardous materials teams when very large shipments of volatile materials are being transported through the county. Often these notifications come days or weeks after an oil train has passed through the area, or not at all.
“Railroads are very good at maintaining manifests so they know exactly what’s in each car, but I can’t say we receive any information letting us know what goes through each week,” says Mike Selan, Longmont Hazardous Materials Inspector.
“A lot of it is protected for national security reasons,” Calderazzo says. “They’re pretty powerful folks and they can withhold information from regular callers, but they do notify us that there are substantial amounts of crude oil coming through the county.”
In fact, railroads have only one requirement when it comes to notifying state and local government of the trans portation of hazardous materials. It’s a recent emergency order from the U.S. Department of Transportation that calls for railroads to notify state emergency response commissions when they are transporting more than one million gallons of Bakken crude oil. When other crude oil or hazardous materials are transported — as is mostly the case in Boulder County — emergency officials need not be told. And if they are told, that information is confidential and cannot be shared with the public.
“It is sensitive, confidential information,” says Amy Danzl, an emergency management specialist with the Boulder Office of Emergency Management. “We get them straight from BNSF or UP. They consider it trade secret stuff.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, not the state emergency management office, manages those notifications. Stasinos, who serves as deputy director of the emergency response division at the state health department, says both Union Pacific and BNSF have sent notifications to the state saying they do not ship Bakken crude oil in Colorado yet.
So the main, and often only, resource that first responders have to prepare for the derailment of an oil train is something called a commodity flow study. These studies are provided by the railroad quarterly or annually upon request of local emergency response teams and list all the materials that have been transported by the company through a specific area in the last year.
Thus, emergency teams can prepare generally for the types of hazardous materials they might encounter in a spill or derailment, but they can’t know beforehand when a train carrying those materials is coming through town.
“We make sure our hazmat teams monitor those so they know generally what comes through,” Danzl says. “So it’s not a day-to-day, here’s what’s coming through the county, but it is, here’s what happened over the last 12 months and that allows us to analyze that and plan accordingly so we can make sure our response capabilities are adequate.”
Those commodity flow studies have indicated to Boulder and Longmont emergency response personnel that crude oil and the cars they’re transported in, although not from the Bakken region, are still major concerns.
“The worst thing that could happen is a crude oil leak and a fire in a derailment,” Calderazzo says. “Then we have to figure out what we do with the smoke, people would have real problems with that, then we need to worry about where the leak is going.
“We look at the county and we look at sensitive environmental areas and sensitive population areas. We haven’t had any incidents in the county [so far] and I don’t really believe we’re under any additional risk other than if it’s true that crude is flowing in greater quantities.”
If the 3,500 percent increase in oil shipments nationally since 2009 and the industry quotes of gold rush-like Niobrara output aren’t enough, Union Pacific’s Mark Davis says of the possibility of increase in northern Colorado oil transportation: “Oh, definitely.” (Then, less succinctly, “We have Niobrara crude moving on us. There’s a couple plants or production facilities that are looking to come online in your neck of the woods.”) The dangerous part of all of this does not lay solely in the fact that the greatest ever quantity of crude oil is now being shipped throughout the country. Instead, perhaps the greatest reason for concern is what this oil is being shipped in.
When you see a train come through town, you’re likely to see one of several car types: crates used to ship commercial goods, racks used to transport cars and big industrial parts, empty beds, etc. Crude oil and other hazardous materials are shipped in a big pressurized black cylinder that dips slightly in the middle, on the top, where the release valve is.
Newer models of this tank are built to carry crude oil, specifically oil from the Bakken and emerging regions like our Niobrara crude, which has been said to be more volatile than oil that was transported in the past. The problem is, the majority of tanks used are the old models (called the DOT- 111), and many people (even the railroad companies) are not confident it is safe to transport this newer breed of crude oil in them.
“The older crude oil tanks were designed for crude oil that did not have a lot of pressure — a lot of vapor dissolved in it,” Calderazzo says. “And I’m told the newer crude, the stuff that’s coming out from fracking, has dissolved gas in it, so the real problem is over-pressurization of tanks. They go down the tracks and overheat.” And then explode.
Eddie Scher, communications director for nonprofit group Forest Ethics, says communities ultimately bear the risk for rail and oil companies who make money sending crude oil in unsafe tanks through population zones.
“If the practice is too dangerous to do then don’t do it,” Scher says. “[The DOT-111] is an antiquated design, it doesn’t protect in derailment, it’s likely to puncture, it doesn’t hold pressure so it releases into the atmosphere. These things are unsafe and shouldn’t be carrying oil of any kind.”
The Department of Transportation urged carriers and oil companies to stop use of DOT-111 cars immediately in May. Out of a total 335,000 tank cars in use across the country, about 228,000 — or two out of every three — are DOT-111 cars, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Williams says that although BNSF does not own the current tanks, they are working to build new, safer tanks to transport crude oil or to retrofit the dangerous old tanks. Every new tank car built since late 2011 has new design features like thicker walls, a high capacity pressure release valve and thermal protection.
But outdated tanks are not the only way in which a train carrying crude oil can cause significant damage to communities. Unprompted derailments, improper exchanges of tanks at depots, leaks, and collisions with other trains and structures have all led to serious explosions within the last 12 months. The issue is also not just the potential harm to people, but previous oil train derailments have caused negative environmental impacts, long-term damage to local infastructure and structural damage. And so adding more oil trains to the rails, specifically in Boulder County where track is narrow and frequently passes through population zones, is cause for concern.
Derailments, spills, leaks and explosions have a much wider impact area than just the immediate vicinity of the railroad (of which, unfortunately, the Quebec derailment was proof). Forest Ethics even put together a map of zones that would be impacted by a derailment and explosion (available at www.explosive-crude-by-rail.org). The map combines data from research, information from railroads and eyewitness accounts with Department of Transportation evacuation areas to create a “blast zone,” or a one-mile area on either side of a track that could experience significant damage from an oil train catastrophe.
This “blast zone” follows the BNSF track in Boulder County. The track parallels Main Street in Longmont before hooking southwest along Foothills Parkway toward Boulder. It breaks sharply east when it gets to about 28th and Arapahoe in
Boulder, then slowly crooks south through downtown Louisville, just scraping the edge of Lafayette. Again, the Department of Transportation views anything within a mile on either side of that route as a hazardous area should a derailment occur.
Planning to deal with an unknown material at an unknown time that could affect an unknown amount of people with an unknown amount of state or rail support cannot be easy. Boulder County, City of Boulder and City of Longmont officials all say they have been trained on how to deal with a variety of hazmat situations, but that they can’t prepare for everything. In fact, many local officials were still unclear about who would notify them in the case of a crude oil disaster and if crude oil was even being transported in the area.
“We can’t plan for every single [situation],” Calderazzo says.
“One tank car, depending on the product, can be a pretty big deal. Take chlorine. Chlorine, if it’s the anhydrous kind, can take just one tank car [to create major damage]. So we look at what are the most cars coming through — we only need [that information] on an annual basis. We try to go with, well, if crude oil is the big commodity then what would we do in terms of a risk assessment of crude oil?” There are regulations on what can and cannot be transported via rail and how rail companies must mark cars that contain hazardous materials. For instance, train cars carrying crude oil will have the number 1267, called a UN number (based on UN standards) on all four sides of the car and a diamond shaped warning label. Cars containing chlorine will have the number 1017, while those with liquefied petroleum gas will have the number 1075. Other hazardous materials that are transported in the area like molten sulfur, ethanol, propionic acid and diesel also have corresponding numbers available on the Department of Transportation website. (Williams says BNSF “typically [does] not operate ethanol trains in Colorado.”) Stasinos says that, at the state emergency level, training for spills with Bakken or Niobrara crude oil is the same as it is for other types of oil spills, even though it is likely more volatile than other crude oil. This training has been in place for more than two decades, he says.
That training includes a hazmat certification program run by the state that all local emergency personnel in Boulder County are required to take. Emergency personnel are drilled on how to treat all types of rail cars, learning what to do if there’s a leak, how to contain it, what to do if there’s a fire, projection modeling and how to protect people in the “blast zone.”
Oil train safety is also on the mind of state and national officials — the U.S. Fire Administration sent out a one-sheet “Coffee Break Training” entitled “Bakken Crude in Transportation” last month, while the EPA’s latest newsletter outlines the rise and risk of transporting crude oil. The newsletter heralds the recent Department of Transportation notification requirement as a step to improved community safety and encourages rail carriers to test all crude oil to determine its volatility class before shipping it.
Even BNSF is now offering three-day classes to local emergency responders on how to deal with crude oil disasters. BNSF runs free railroad hazmat response training to about 4,000 local emergency responders every year in communities across their network.
Still, advocates seeking to bring attention to the danger of oil trains say communities shouldn’t have to deal with the risk of catastrophe from a derailment. Scher says the choice of transporting oil via train or via pipeline — of which both have significant safety issues — or via any other method is a “false choice.”
“The idea that the oil has to be moved and so somebody needs to be forced to take the risk is wrongheaded,” Scher says. “It’s not something we should have to accept. We should not be accepting this massive rise of dangerous trains through our population centers. There are regulations under review at the White House; we want those to be strong. And one thing we believe is communities should have the right to say no to these trains.”