Category Archives: First responder training

From Washington state to D.C., fears of oil train risks on rise

Repost from The Missoulian
[Editor:  An interesting summary of recent developments on crude by rail safety.  – RS]

From Washington state to D.C., fears of oil train risks on rise

By Kim Briggeman, March 28, 2015 6:00 pm
Illinois oil train derailment involved safer tank cars
Smoke and flames erupt from the scene of a train derailment Thursday, March 5, 2015, near Galena, Ill. A BNSF Railway freight train loaded with crude oil derailed around 1:20 p.m. in a rural area where the Galena River meets the Mississippi, said Jo Daviess County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Moser. (AP Photo/Telegraph Herald, Jessica Reilly)

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.

As oil trains roll across America, volunteer firefighters face big risk

Repost from Reuters

As oil trains roll across America, volunteer firefighters face big risk

By Edward McAllister, Mar 23, 2015 4:45pm EDT
Firefighters' jackets and helmets are hung on a wall in the main fire hall in West Webster, New York, December 28, 2012. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Firefighters’ jackets and helmets are hung on a wall in the main fire hall in West Webster, New York, December 28, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

(Reuters) – Volunteers at the Galena, Illinois, fire department were hosing down the smoldering wreck of a derailed BNSF oil train on the east bank of the Mississippi River on March 5 when a fire suddenly flared beyond their control. Minutes later, the blaze reached above the treetops, visible for miles around.

“They dropped the hoses and got out” when the flames started rising, said Charles Pedersen, emergency manager for Jo Daviess County, a rural area near the Iowa border which includes Galena. “Ten more minutes and we would have lost them all.”

No one was hurt in the fire, which burned for days, fed by oil leaking from the ruptured tank cars. But an increase in explosive accidents in North America this year highlights the risks that thousands of rural fire departments face as shipments of oil by rail grow and regulators call for improved train car standards.

Nearly two years after a crude oil train derailed, exploded and killed 47 people in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013, there are no uniform U.S. standards for oil train safety procedures, and training varies widely across the country, according to interviews with firefighters and experts in oil train derailments and training.

About 2,500 fire departments are adjacent to rail lines transporting oil in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa alone, according to figures provided by the Department of Transportation, but no nationwide statistics exist. The DOT does not know which of these fire departments are in need of training, a spokesman said.

The scenario concerns experts who say more needs to be done for sparsely equipped, rural, mostly volunteer-run fire departments to prepare as oil train accidents increase. Already this year, four oil trains have derailed and exploded in North America, double last year’s tally.

No deaths have occurred as a result of U.S. derailments. Oil trains have been a consistent feature on U.S. rails only since 2009.

“Is it acceptable that we just let these fires burn out?” said Thomas Miller, board member of the National Volunteer Fire Council and principal at the National Fire Protection Association, which draws up training guidelines.

“We have to have a comprehensive plan to identify training levels required and to make sure training is available,” he said.


Railroads have increased safety training in the nearly two years since Lac-Megantic, a period during which nine trains have derailed and exploded in North America.

Berkshire Hathaway-owned BNSF, CSX Corp, Norfolk Southern Corp and other railroads have bolstered their own network of hundreds of hazardous-materials experts and equipment centers dotted around the country that react if an accident occurs.

The major North American railroads last year spent $5 million to send more than 1,500 first responders on a new three-day oil train program in Pueblo, Colorado, the first site dedicated to oil derailment training in the United States.

The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is developing an oil derailment training module, expected to be completed in May.

But PHMSA funding to state and tribal governments for hazmat training has declined from $21.1 million in 2010 to $20.2 million last year, even as oil derailments increased. Moreover, interviews with fire departments across the country reveal stark disparities in training.

In Galena, where up to 50 oil trains roll through each week, the fire department had received some basic hazmat training provided by BNSF last year. But when the train came off the rails in March, Galena firefighters were still waiting for a slot at the Pueblo, Colorado facility.

“It was a bit cart-before-the-horse,” said Galena volunteer fire chief Randy Beadle. “It just happened that we had an incident before we could get the guys out there” to Pueblo, he said.

It is unclear what exactly the Galena firefighters might have done differently given proper training and greater resources, but other firefighters who have received extensive training say it is vital to countering an oil train blaze safely.

In Casselton, North Dakota, the fire department has been “bombarded” with training after an oil train collided with a derailed soybean train in December 2013, setting 21 oil cars ablaze and causing a fireball whose heat was felt from over a quarter of a mile away, said Casselton’s volunteer fire chief, Tim McLean.

Before that accident, McLean and his 28-strong fire team “had no idea oil trains were that explosive,” said McLean, a corn and soy farmer. Since then, eight firefighters from the department have been to the Pueblo site for intensive training and more will attend this year.

In Pembroke, Virginia, where CSX rerouted some crude oil trains last month after a derailment damaged its track in West Virginia, the volunteer department has had no specific oil training, said fire department president Jerry Gautier.

“We have reached thousands of people for hydrogen and ethanol training, but the oil program is in its infancy,” said Rick Edinger, a member of the hazardous material committee at the International Fire Chiefs Association. “It could take a couple of years to roll out.”

Meanwhile, oil train accidents remain at the front of people’s minds in Galena, especially for Pedersen, the emergency manager in Jo Daviess county, one of the busiest areas in Illinois for oil trains.

“Every time I hear a train go by now, I think a little differently about it,” he said.

(Editing by Matthew Lewis)

KFBK News Radio: How safe is Sacramento?

Repost from KFBK News Radio, Sacramento CA
[Editor: Two part series, both shown below.  Of particular interest: a link to 2014 California Crude Imports by Rail.  Also, at the end of the article an amazing Globe and Mail video animation detailing the moments leading up to the devastating explosion in Lac-Megantic Quebec.  – RS]

Part 1: How Safe is Sacramento When it Comes to Crude-by-Rail?

By Kaitlin Lewis, January 16, 2015

Two different railroad companies transport volatile crude oil to or through Sacramento a few times a month. The trains pass through Truckee, Colfax, Roseville, Sacramento and Davis before reaching a stop in Benicia. Last week, a train carrying the chemical Toluene derailed in Antelope.

KFBK’s Tim Lantz reported that three cars overturned in the derailment. There was initially some concern about a possible Hazmat leak.

Union Pacific Railroad insists over 99 percent of hazardous rail shipments are handled safely.

Most of the oil shipped in California is extremely toxic and heavy Canadian tar sands oil, but an increasing portion of shipments are Bakken crude, which has been responsible for major explosions and fires in derailments.

Firefighters around the region are being trained on how to respond to crude oil spills.

However, Kelly Huston with the California Office of Emergency Services says 40 percent of the state’s firefighters are volunteers.

“They’re challenged right from the get-go of being able to respond to a catastrophic event like a derailment, explosion or spill of a highly volatile compound like crude oil,” Huston said.

Since 2008, crude by rail has increased by 4000 percent across the country.

By 2016, crude-by-rail shipments in California are supposed to rise by a factor of 25.

Union Pacific Railroad hosted a training session in November 2014.

Six out of the eight state fire departments listed as having completed the course confirm they were there.

“We were trained in November,” Jerry Apodaca, Captain of Sac City Fire, said.

When asked when he received the first notification of crude oil coming through, he said he didn’t have an exact date, but that it was probably a month or two prior to the training — in September or October.

Apodaca says the U.S. Department of Transportation requires railroads to notify state officials about Bakken oil shipments.

“Basically it just says in this month’s time, there should be 100,000 gallons going through your community. So it didn’t really specify when, or where, or how many cars or what it looks like,” Apodaca said.

And Paul King, rail safety chief of the California Public Utilities Commission, says it’s not easier to distinguish which lines transport Bakken oil through an online map.

“It was hard to interpret and it was too gross. Basically, the whole state of California on an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper with what appears to be a highlighter pen just running through the counties,” King said.

See a map of North American crude by rail.
California rail risk and response.
2014 Crude Imports by Rail

PART 2: How Sacramento’s First Responders Will Deal with Oil Spill

KFBK told you Sacramento’s firefighters were being trained on how to respond to a crude-by-rail derailment after shipments had already been going through the region in Part 1.

In Part 2, KFBK’s Kaitlin Lewis will tell you how Sacramento’s first responders will handle a possible oil spill, and what caused that train derailment along the Feather River Canyon.

It’s called a bomb train.

On July 6, 2013, 47 people were killed in Canada when a 73-car train carrying crude oil derailed.

About 30 buildings in the  Lac-Mégantic downtown district were destroyed. The fire burned for 36 hours.

“If we have a derailment and fire of crude oil, fire departments are going to throw large quantities of water and foam to cool the tanks and to put a blanket on the liquid that’s on the ground to help smother that fire,” Mike Richwine, assistant state fire marshal for Cal Fire, said.

Richwine says that’s the only operation for a spill/fire.

In December, 11 cars carrying corn derailed along the Feather River Canyon.

Paul King, rail safety chief of the California Public Utilities Commission reveals the cause was a rail line break.

“That was probably the most concerning accident because that just as well could have been one of the Bakken oil trains, the corn, you know, ran down the bank. It was heavy, and it consequently does put more force on the rail, but it’s about the same weight as an oil train,” King said.

Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Union Pacific says California has more than 40 track inspectors and 470 track maintenance employees.

“In addition to that, cutting edge technology that we put in to use for track inspection. One of those technologies is our geometry car. It measures using lasers and ultrasonic waves, the space between the two rails — makes sure that space is accurate,” Hunt said.

But Kelly Huston, deputy director of California’s Office of Emergency Services says the real challenge is preparedness in remote areas like the Feather River Canyon, which is designated as a High Hazard Area due to historic derailments.

“In some more metropolitan areas, your response may be quicker and they’ll have that gear and the training and knowledge of, like, how do we fight this kind of fire? And in some areas, like in the more remote areas like we talked about in the Feather River Canyon there’s going to be perhaps maybe volunteer firefighters that have the basic equipment,” Huston said.

The Feather River feeds the California Water Project, which provides drinking water for millions of Californians. The nearest first responder is Butte County Fire Department, which is approximately 31 miles away.