Derailment fireballs too hot to handle

Repost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor: I wrote the following for publication in the Benicia Herald to comment on our local version of a phenomenon taking place at cities across the nation.  I’ve lost track of the number of Google alerts in recent weeks about first-responder-crude-by-rail-training-events sponsored at great expense by the rail and refinery industries.  In nearly every case, the after-training press releases and interviews serve as pacifiers to public concerns, with assurances of adequate equipment and training should anything go wrong.  This is, of course, far from the case.  Our respected and heroic firefighters are caught in a catch-22: of course they want additional training, but their work should not be made into a pawn in the ugly game of industry painting itself as clean and safe.  – RS]

Roger Straw: A straw man

November 14, 2014 by Roger Straw

THE HERALD’S RECENT TWO PART SERIES (click HERE and HERE) on the Union Pacific Railroad emergency training at Valero for a crude-by-rail accident suggested that someone, somewhere has claimed that “crude oil fires can’t be extinguished” and that “foam doesn’t put out fires.” Valero Fire Chief Joe Bateman called it a “fabrication,” and he’s right. No one I know has claimed this. (Classically, this is referred to as a “straw man” argument … and as you might guess, someone with my last name just can’t resist rising to the bait.)

The fire at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, is out, so it surely was extinguished, though it took two days beginning with a period when it could not be approached. For a time there was, in fact, no alternative to just letting it burn. The same is true of the explosion in Casselton, N.D. In certain circumstances, firefighters do deliberately let a fire burn itself out. Sometimes this is a triage decision: First responders’ priorities are sometimes directed to saving lives and deflecting the flow of a spill. Other times it is because there is no other choice.

It is accurate to state that foam puts out crude oil fires, but that statement loses its meaning in a worst-case scenario of a major catastrophic derailment and explosion. When there is a massive fire such as that in Lac-Mégantic or Casselton, firefighters have been unable to safely approach the inferno and have indeed been forced to let the fire burn. Foam puts out oil fires, but not when emergency personnel are a half-mile distance from a catastrophic explosion.

I recently received a communication from Fred Millar, a well-known independent consultant and expert on chemical safety and railroad transportation. Millar gives convincing and documented testimony addressing the tactic of “letting it burn itself out.” He wrote, “…in several post-Lac-Mégantic forums (see the NTSB Safety Forum webcast) and in many media articles, the majority of fire service experts have been clear that the ongoing crude oil rail disasters are beyond their capabilities to handle. Even with an infinite amount of costly foam, letting them burn is the only sensible approach (and this is what was done in all the major crude oil disasters in North America).”

Millar’s full statement and nearly a dozen other reputable sources confirm this as fact. (See Benicia Independent articles: Firefighters will sometimes stand back and let an oil train fire burn itself out and Expert on first responder decisions to ‘let it burn’.)

A few questions remain. Did the Union Pacific training include preparation for a massive unapproachable explosion? Do our first responders know what to do (or not do) in the case of another Lac-Mégantic, Lynchburg or Casselton? Have our firefighters and emergency personnel considered how to protect Valero’s Industrial Park neighbors and residents within a 1-mile blast/evacuation zone of a potential major accident? Somehow, I don’t think Union Pacific’s shiny yellow training tank car did much to help our local heroes figure out what to do if a 50-car train carrying millions of gallons of volatile Bakken crude oil derails, punctures and sets off multiple massive explosions.

Yes, I know … not likely. But few would disagree: When it comes to high-risk ventures, “well-prepared” means knowledge of, and readiness for, worst-case scenarios.

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Roger Straw is a Benicia resident.