Mosier Fire Chief Calls Shipping Bakken Crude Oil By Rail ‘Insane’
By Amelia Templeton, June 4, 2016 4:39 p.m. | Updated: June 5, 2016 9:04 a.m.
Jim Appleton, the fire chief in Mosier, Ore., said in the past, he’s tried to reassure his town that the Union Pacific Railroad has a great safety record and that rail accidents are rare.
He’s changed his mind.
After a long night working with hazardous material teams and firefighters from across the Northwest to extinguish a fire that started when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in his town, Appleton no longer believes shipping oil by rail is safe.
“I hope that this becomes death knell for this mode of shipping this cargo. I think it’s insane,” he said. “I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now, but with this incident, and with all due respect to the wonderful people that I’ve met at Union Pacific, shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.”
Federal regulators say oil from the Bakken region is more flammable and more dangerous, than other types of crude. It’s been involved in a string of rail disasters, including a tragedy that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.
Shipments through the Columbia River Gorge have dramatically increased in recent years and oil companies have proposed building the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the country 70 miles downstream from Mosier, at the the Port of Vancouver.
Emergency responders in communities along rail lines in the Northwest have struggled to prepare for a possible disaster. Much of the focus has been on stockpiling critical equipment needed to fight oil spills and fires, including a special type of fire suppression foam.
But Appleton said that foam was of relatively little use for the first 10 hours after the spill in Mosier. It couldn’t be directly applied to the main rail car that was on fire.
“The rationale that was explained to me by the Union Pacific fire personnel is that the metal is too hot, and the foam will land on the white-hot metal and evaporate without any suppression effect,” he said. “That was kind of an eye-opener for me.”
Appleton said crews spent 8 to 10 hours cooling down the adjacent rail cars with water before the final burning car was cool enough to be extinguished using the firefighting foam. Fire tending trucks drew water from the Columbia River using a nearby orchard supply line, and applied roughly 1,500 gallons of water per minute to the white-hot rail cars.
Other first responders described a chaotic scene, and difficulty getting to the site of the accident due to a massive snarl of traffic on Interstate 84.
“It looked like the apocalypse,” said Elizabeth Sanchey, the Yakima Nation’s environmental manager and the head of its hazmat crew. “You get into town, and there is just exhausted firefighters everywhere you look. It was quite scary.”
No lives were lost in the fire, and reports so far of property damage have been minimal, but an oil slick has appeared in the Columbia River, and officials said they haven’t determined for sure how oil is reaching the water. Yellow oil containment booms were stretched across the river to contain the oil.
Sanchey and several other Yakama Nation first responders were monitoring the containment effort through binoculars from a nearby overpass.
“It’s unknown how much oil is in the river, but it is in containment now, and we believe it to be relatively safe,” she said. “We currently have a sockeye run that is just starting, and lamprey live in the sediment, so that’s definitely a concern. We have endangered species at risk.”
Jim Appleton said Friday was a horrible day for his town, and he feels like he narrowly avoided a catastrophe.
“If the same derailment had happened just 24 hours earlier, there would have been 35 mph gusts blowing the length of the train,” he said. “The fire very easily could have spread to some or all of the 96 cars behind, because they were in the line of the prevailing wind. That would have been the catastrophe.”
In a press conference Saturday, the Union Pacific Railroad apologized for the incident.
“We apologize to the residents of Mosier, the state of Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest Region,” said spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza.
Espinoza said the railroad company will pay for the cost of fighting the fire. She said it has to wait for the area to cool down before it can extract the cars that remain and remove them by flatbed truck.
The company said crude oil represents less than 1 percent of its cargo, and said it has trained more than 2,300 emergency responders across Oregon since 2010.
Union Pacific set up information and health hotlines for Mosier residents. The information hotline number is 1-877-877-2567. The health hotline number is 1-888-633-3120.
Northern California towns lack resources to handle oil train fires, spills
By Jane Braxton Little, April 23, 2016 7:49 AM
• Lassen County town has no reliable water supply for firefighting
• Crude oil transport by rail grew 1,700 percent in 2015
• Federal government providing hands-on response training
WESTWOOD – BNSF Railway trains carrying crude oil and other hazardous materials rumble through this Lassen County community every day – past homes, churches and a scant block from the downtown commercial center.
If a tank car were to derail and explode, Westwood Fire Chief Forest Duerksen would take the only action he’s equipped for: Evacuation. Of all 1,000 residents.
Westwood has no consistent source of water, and the closest trailers with enough foam to extinguish a large blaze are a full four hours away, he said: “We’d just have to get everybody out and go from there.”
Rural officials like Duerksen have been worried for decades about the chlorine, ammonia, propane and crude oil transported through their northern California communities by BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad. But a dramatic surge in production in oil fields in the Midwest and Canada increased the volume from about 10,000 railroad tank cars in 2008 to nearly half a million in 2014. In 2015, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported a 1,700 percent increase in crude oil transportation by rail.
That’s slowed significantly in the last year, a change generally attributed to a drop in the price of oil. But emergency responders worry that the volume will swell again when crude oil prices rise. In recent weeks, many have observed an increase in the number of tank cars on trains running south toward Sacramento and San Francisco.
That could be a precursor to the half-mile long oil trains planned for travel through Northern California to Benicia. Valero Refining Co. has proposed building a rail loading station that would allow importing oil on two 50-car trains a day to the city 40 miles northeast of San Francisco.
The trains would run through Roseville, downtown Sacramento, West Sacramento, downtown Davis, Dixon and other cities. East of Roseville, the route is uncertain. Trains could arrive via Donner Summit, Feather River Canyon, or through the Shasta and Redding areas.
WE’D JUST HAVE TO GET EVERYBODY OUT AND GO FROM THERE.
Westwood Fire Chief Forest Duerksen
On Tuesday, the Benicia City Council postponed until September a decision on Valero’s appeal of a February planning commission recommendation that unanimously rejected the proposal.
Accidents have mounted with the increase in the number of trains transporting oil around the country. A 2013 oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, haunts firefighters across the continent. The fire and detonation of multiple tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil killed 47 people and destroyed dozens of buildings.
No one was hurt in 2014, when 11 cars derailed on Union Pacific tracks in the Feather River Canyon, spilling corn down a hillside above the river that supplies drinking water to millions of people as far south as Los Angeles. The cars could easily have been carrying crude oil, with substantial environmental consequences far beyond the Feather River, said Jerry Sipe, director of Plumas County’s Office of Emergency Services.
“We were lucky,” he said.
In 2015 there were 574 railway “incidents” involving hazardous materials while in transport, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Of these, 114 were in California, and three in Roseville, site of a large rail yard. Most were minor, and none involved fatalities.
Officials in California’s up-rail cities, including Sacramento, have raised objections to plans to expand oil train traffic, saying not enough attention is being given to safety concerns. But these large urban jurisdictions are far better equipped to respond to incidents than their counterparts in rural Northern California, where train tracks pass through some of the state’s roughest terrain.
In these rural areas, the people responding first to oil spills and accidents are generally local fire departments like Duerksen’s, one of the nation’s 20,000 all-volunteer fire organizations. Among the small rural communities along BNSF’s tracks through Northern California, the Westwood Fire Department is one of the better equipped for a hazardous materials accident.
Duerksen took advantage of a BNSF program at the railroad industry’s training and research center in Pueblo, Colo. That gave him hands-on experience in using water and foam on a burning railcar, and taught him advanced techniques for containing spills.
Increase in crude oil transportation by rail in 2015
Since then, several volunteer firefighters from Westwood and communities along the BNSF line have attended the training. Quincy and other fire departments along the Union Pacific line have also sent volunteers to Pueblo.
Plumas County was recently awarded a grant to acquire an oil spill trailer with firefighting foam and 1,200 feet of “hard booms,” which can contain large quantities of hazardous materials. Sipe said it will be positioned along Highway 70 at Rogers Flat for quick deployment in the Feather River Canyon, where aging trestles and sharp curves make it among the most accident-prone rail lines in the state.
“We’re better protected now than a year ago,” Sipe said.
Despite the improvements, many fire departments remain untrained and poorly equipped. In Greenville, where the BNSF line passes directly through residential and commercial areas, none of the 25 volunteers has been to the oil-spill training in Pueblo, said Chris Gallagher, general manager of the Indian Valley Community Services District, which oversees the fire department. Four of the department’s 10 pieces of equipment have been deemed inoperable by the California Highway Patrol, he said.
“We definitely need some help,” said Gallagher.
That could come through an innovative program taking the Pueblo emergency response training on the road. Rail safety experts will travel to communities around the country providing hands-on accident preparedness to firefighters. Funded by a $2.4 million award from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the mobile training program is expected to train about 18,000 first responders from remote rural communities in 2016.
The award is part of a $5.9 million grant to provide hazardous materials training for volunteer or remote emergency responders. Plumas County has already requested the mobile training, Sipe said.
BNSF strongly supports these programs, said Lena Kent, a company spokeswoman. Last year alone it trained 10,000 first responders, 1,500 of them in California.
Duerksen, the Westwood fire chief, said he feels much safer than he did two years ago, when the increase in oil-train traffic had emergency responders on edge. “We’re better trained and better prepared now,” he said.
But not everyone is content with the increased training and beefed-up emergency response equipment. Larry Bradshaw, a retired therapist and community activist in Westwood, is advocating for additional safety requirements for BNSF. He wants to see a high-risk rail designation extended from Greenville to Westwood, imposing a 45 mph maximum speed and increasing the number of inspections.
“We’re not prepared at all. There’s no way we can respond to a spill. The only thing we can do is evacuate,” Bradshaw said.
Military to check for water contamination at 664 sites
By Jennifer McDermott, Mar. 10, 2016 5:12 PM EST
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The military plans to examine hundreds of sites nationwide to determine whether chemicals from foam used to fight fires have contaminated groundwater and spread to drinking water, the Defense Department said.
The checks are planned for 664 sites where the military has conducted fire or crash training, military officials told The Associated Press this week.
Since December, tests have been carried out at 28 naval sites in mostly coastal areas. Drinking water at a landing field in Virginia and the groundwater at another site in New Jersey have been found to contain levels above the guidance given by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy said. Results of the other tests have either come up under federally acceptable levels or are pending.
The Navy is giving bottled water to its personnel at the Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress in Chesapeake, Virginia, and is testing wells in a nearby rural area after the discovery of perfluorinated chemicals in drinking water, which the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says may be associated with prostate, kidney and testicular cancer, along with other health issues.
The Navy found perfluorinated chemicals in the groundwater monitoring wells at Naval Weapons Station Earle in Colts Neck, New Jersey, but not in the drinking water supply. Test results from off-base drinking water wells are expected this month.
And several congressmen are raising concerns about the safety of drinking water near two former Navy bases in suburban Philadelphia. The lawmakers say firefighting foams might be the source of chemicals found in nearly 100 public and private wells near the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove and the Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster.
The foam is used where potentially catastrophic fuel fires can occur, such as in a plane crash, because it can rapidly extinguish them. It contains perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOS and PFOA, both considered emerging contaminants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Defense Department said that until foam without perfluorinated chemicals can be certified for military use, it is removing stocks of it in some places and also trying to prevent any uncontrolled releases during training exercises.
The military is beginning to assess the risk to groundwater at the training sites not only to determine the extent of contamination, but also to identify any action the Defense Department needs to take, said Lt. Col. Eric D. Badger, a department spokesman.
California has the most sites, with 85, followed by Texas, with 57, Florida, with 38, and Alaska and South Carolina, each with 26, according to a list provided to the AP. Each state has at least one site.
Knowledge about the chemicals’ effects has been evolving, and the EPA does not regulate them. The agency in 2009 issued guidance on the level at which they are considered harmful to health, but it was only an advisory — not a standard that could be legally enforced.
The EPA said then that it was assessing the potential risk from short-term exposure through drinking water. It later began studying the health effects from a lifetime of exposure. Those studies remain in progress.
The Navy started handing out bottled water in January to about 50 people at the contaminated Virginia site, and it worked with the city to set up a water station for concerned property owners after it found perfluorinated chemicals in on-base drinking water wells above the concentrations in the EPA advisory.
The Navy is testing private wells of nearby property owners; those results are due next week.
Chris Evans, of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, credited the Navy with being proactive but said he’s concerned anytime there’s a potential threat to human health and the environment.
Some states have established their own drinking water and groundwater guidelines for the maximum allowable concentrations of the chemicals; Virginia uses the EPA’s.
“We’ll follow EPA’s lead as this develops,” Evans said.
There’s a lot of evolving science around perfluorinated chemicals, said Lawrence Hajna, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
“The more that we hear, the more that we realize that this is a very important health concern,” he said.
Online: A list of the fire and crash training sites where the military is assessing the risk of groundwater contamination from firefighting foam: http://bit.ly/1LUHt32