Expert on first responder decisions to ‘let it burn’

[Editor: I recently received an email from Fred Millar, a well-known independent consultant and expert on chemical safety and railroad transportation.  Millar gives convincing and documented testimony that many first responders admit they do not have the skills and equipment needed to address a major derailment and explosion of a train carrying hazardous materials such as Bakken crude.  Here he addresses the tactic of “letting it burn itself out.”  Reprinted here with permission.  – RS]

Fred Millar on emergency response:

NTSB Rail Safety Forum 4.23.2014 (webcast at 8min05sec)_opt
Testimony at NTSB Rail Safety Forum April 23, 2014: Decision to Let Burn, (webcast at 8min05sec),

I recently commented on Emergency Response capabilities and cited some of the most authoritative sources I rely on regarding the impossibility of any effective ER to a crude oil unit train derailment:

I viewed online and transcribed for interested parties some parts of the NTSB Safety Forum in April, 2014.   One early session involved first-hand analyses of accidents and unchallenged authoritative judgments by prominent US Fire Chiefs [one representing the International Association of Fire Chiefs] and emergency planning representatives  asserting that they cannot handle a major flammables unit train derailment. which they said was “way beyond our current capabilities.”  [See video webscast, note presentation at 7:50]

Instead, they conceded that all they could implement were “defensive firefighting tactics,” i.e., evacuate to a safe distance.  The Federal government recommends a 1/2 mile evacuation and isolation distance in the Guide 128 of the venerable DOT Emergency Response Guidebook.  This guideline is based on only one railcar of crude oil involved in a fire, hardly a reflection of real-world accidents already experienced.  Since many experienced accidents have involved many railcars and unit trains on average have 100+ cars, some fire chiefs and emergency managers with crude oil unit train traffic are doing their pre-planning based on potential evacuation zones of 1/2 and 1 mile on each side of the tracks [e.g., statement by Seattle Emergency Management director Barb Graff] or even have pre-loaded their fire service vehicles with GIS maps showing emergency zones of 1/2, 1, 2, and 5-miles [e.g., James City County VA].

The US DOT Emergency Response Guidebook says both ethanol and crude oil trains are “highly flammable and explosive” under some conditions.  The main danger is not so much a “blast,” not technically speaking an explosion of a whole tank car, and the damages at Lac-Megantic were not mainly from blast.  The main risk is extensive fire and fireball events [which can feel to survivors like blasts on their faces] involving first the most volatile components of the cargo and then the main railcar cargo itself ———“rivers of fire”.

[I could elaborate and quote here from the cf UIUC academic study….]

Some US fire chiefs and emergency managers, who almost always prefer to maintain that their communities are “prepared” for even serious emergencies, have asserted [irresponsibly, I would maintain] that with adequate regional cooperation to combine strategically pre-positioned trailers with stocks of fire-fighting foam, they could “fight” crude oil train derailment fire events.   The Pittsburg CA Fire Department [crude oil unit train unloading project proposed] and the Boston MA metropolitan area fire chiefs [ongoing ethanol unit train shipments] thus recently separately submitted wish lists of  the different types of foam supplies needed for laying down a smothering blanket on relatively quiet and level crude oil or ethanol pool fires [useless for burning and exploding tank cars or raging “rivers of fire”], and for fixed foam spraying equipment at the unloading terminals and mobile foam vehicles for the line haul communities.  Along with desired training, etc., the chiefs estimated the cost at $1.2 million in the Boston case.

But in several post-Lac-Mégantic forums [again, see the NTSB Safety Forum, beginning around 8:40 on the webcast of Day Two] 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).  They note that major derailments would require enormous amounts of foam, there is not enough water to apply it especially in rural areas, and anyway, [from 1/2 mile distance or more] they cannot get close enough to the fires to apply it.  Derailments in urban areas would pose significant operating risks that go well beyond current operational capabilities for emergency responders.