Fire safety officials to NTSB: very little we can do

Repost from the White Plains NY Journal News on

NTSB hears concerns on derailments of oil trains

Brian Tumulty, TJN  |  April 23, 2014
A CSX train carrying light crude oil makes it way through West Nyack on March 17, 2014.(Photo: Ricky Flores Ricky Flores/The Journal News)

WASHINGTON – Crude oil and ethanol fires caused by derailed freight trains are left to burn out on their own because first responders can’t extinguish them, fire safety officials told the National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday.

“They are no-brainers,” Greg Noll of the National Fire Protection Association said during the second day of a two-day forum on safety issues linked to rail transport of crude oil and ethanol. “There is very little we as first responders are going to do.”

Even multiple fire departments located near the site of a railroad tanker fire don’t have enough foam to extinguish such blazes, which can spread from car to car. The DOT-111 tankers that carry most crude oil moved by freight rail can’t quickly vent high-pressure vapors that build up inside the cars, railroad experts said during the first day of the forum Tuesday. They said those vapors can ignite into a thermal mushroom cloud.

The use of so-called unit trains carrying up to 100 tanker cars of crude oil or ethanol is a relatively new phenomenon that risks catastrophic events such as the July 2013 accident in Quebec that caused 47 deaths and the evacuation of more than 2,000 people.

The engineer on that crude oil train failed to properly secure it on an incline when it was parked overnight. The train rolled into the community of in Lac-Megantic, derailing at a speed of 64 mph.

An estimated 434,000 tanker loads of crude oil were shipped by rail last year, compared to only 9,500 in 2008, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Much of that oil was carried, mostly on freight trains, from the Bakken Formation oil field in North Dakota and Montana to refineries on the East, West and Gulf coasts. Oil production in the Bakken field reached 1 million barrels a day in December and is forecast to peak at 2 million barrels a day in seven years, Skip Elliott of CSX Transportation told the NTSB.

Deadly derailments of trains carrying crude oil and ethanol also have raised questions about tanker car design, but industry groups say they haven’t been able to agree on the thickness of steel in the shell of new tankers.

Rail tanker manufacturers said they’re ready to increase production to meet increased demand, but want regulatory certainty about the future standard.

Industry officials said a disagreement over one-eighth-of-an-inch thickness of steel for the shell — whether to continue using 7/16ths of an inch or move to 9/16ths of an inch — led them to ask federal regulators to promulgate a rule setting the standard for new tanker cars.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which has jurisdiction over rail tanker car safety standards, has not yet proposed a new standard. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who oversees the agency, has told Congress no date has been set for releasing a draft of the proposed standard.