Previously secret details: Bakken crude oil rolling over Ohio rails

Repost from The Columbus Dispatch

Bakken crude oil rolls over Ohio rails

By Laura Arenschield & Rick Rouan, January 29, 2015
Ohio’s railroad tracks handle at least 45 million gallons of Bakken crude oil in a week. This view of tracks is from Groveport Road on the South Side. | Tom Dodge | Dispatch

Millions of gallons of some of the most volatile crude oil in North America are being transported on rail lines through Ohio each week, according to reports that the state had kept secret until this week.

The railroad-company reports show that 45 million to 137 million gallons of Bakken crude oil come through Ohio each week from North Dakota oil fields on the way to East Coast refineries.

Two million to 25 million gallons a week come through Franklin County alone.

Bakken crude oil is desirable to oil and gas companies because it requires less refining than other shale oil to be turned into diesel fuel and gasoline. It also is highly flammable.

Prompted by a 2013 train derailment and explosion that killed 47 people in Quebec and an explosion in Lynchburg, Va., last April, federal regulators began requiring railroads in May to report the average weekly number of trains carrying at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude.

Those reports are sent to state emergency-management agencies. The U.S. Department of Transportation has said the files don’t contain sensitive security details, prompting some states, including Virginia and Washington, to make the reports public.

Despite requests from environmental groups, citizens and news outlets, including one from The Dispatch in July, Ohio would not release the reports, citing an exemption in the public-records law meant to prevent acts of terrorism.

Then this week, the state released the records to Lea Harper, managing director of the FreshWater Accountability Project, an environmental advocacy group.

The state released the reports to The Dispatch yesterday.

“So many other states are doing it, and our legal staff started looking into it and made a determination that it probably was not as volatile of information as it first seemed to be,” said Joseph Andrews, a spokesman for the State Emergency Response Commission in Ohio.

One of Harper’s relatives lives in a nursing home in Seneca County, near railroad tracks where Bakken crude-oil shipments pass each week. She said she worries about his safety.

“Anything that has happened in the past can certainly happen again,” she said, referencing the explosions in Virginia and Quebec.

No Bakken shipments have exploded or caught fire in Ohio, Andrews said.

Transport of crude oil via rail has surged in recent years amid the boom in the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota.

The amount of crude petroleum hauled on U.S. railroads increased from more than 20 million tons in 2012 to nearly 40 million tons in 2013, the most recent data available through the Association of American Railroads. In 2011, about 5 million tons of crude was hauled by rail.

That number includes all oil, not just Bakken crude oil.

With nearly 5,300 miles of track, Ohio has one of the densest concentrations of rail in the nation and is a crossroads between the Bakken shale formation and East Coast refineries.

Most of the Bakken crude traveling through Ohio is being transported on CSX rail lines. The CSX report shows that 30 million to 105 million gallons of Bakken crude are hauled through Ohio each week. Norfolk Southern moves 13 million to 28 million gallons of Bakken crude.

Norfolk Southern spokesman David Pidgeon said the company opposes public release of its routes for Bakken crude for security reasons.

“We have to balance that openness with operating a secure network,” Pidgeon said.

In an email, CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay said crude-oil shipments represent less than 2 percent of the freight the railroad transports.

She said the company often goes beyond federal standards for track inspection and stays well within speed limits.

In February 2013, railroads opted for voluntary measures to ensure safe shipment of crude oil, including reduced speed limits and more inspections.

Canadian Pacific Railway runs an average of three trains per week on a short stretch of Norfolk Southern rail that cuts through northwestern Ohio. Those trains cross from Indiana into Williams County and travel northeast through Fulton County before crossing into Michigan.

The train that exploded in Quebec started as a Canadian Pacific train. The company transferred the train to Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway in Canada before the derailment.

Canadian Pacific has made several changes since, including tighter security requirements, more frequent inspections of tracks and equipment and more worker training, said Andy Cummings, a company spokesman.

“We took a very close look at our practices,” he said.

The reports sent to state emergency-management agencies do not say when Bakken crude oil is coming through Ohio. Railroad companies are not required to report schedules for those shipments.

In Cuyahoga County, 29 million to 45 million gallons of Bakken crude travel along rail lines each week.

“It’s a concern,” said Walter Topps, Cuyahoga County’s emergency-management agency administrator. “It’s not a concern in the sense that we’re not ready. But there’s an awareness in the first-responder community, among fire departments … we’re all aware of this.”