Could oil train disaster happen on the Hi-Line?
January 3, 2014
Officials prepare for chance of crude oil derailment, fire, as Bakken rail shipping increases
With railroad shipments of crude oil extracted from the Bakken formation continuing to ramp up, officials around the country - including the Hi-Line - are preparing for the worst.
Their concern is highlighted by another derailment and massive fire earlier this week.
With the sight of 100-car tanker trains carrying Bakken sweet, light crude oil heading west along the Hi-Line becoming a common occurrence, Hill County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Joe Parenteau said the county Local Emergency Planning Committee is making plans in case a disaster happens here.
"It is definitely on my radar, and it kind of tends to keep me awake a little longer at night when I think about it ... ," Parenteau said. "The potential is definitely there."
He said BNSF - and the railroad industry as a whole - have a better than 99.9 percent record for transporting hazardous material without spills - but even a fraction of 1 percent is still more than zero.
"Stuff still happens," Parenteau said. "It is something we do think about and try to prepare for as best as we can."
Rail shipping increasing from the Bakken
As newer techniques to extract oil - hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, used to free oil from the shale in which it is contained - have massively increased production from the Bakken formation in eastern Montana and western North Dakota.
The Bakken production now has moved North Dakota to the second-highest oil-producing state in the nation, behind only Texas. And the rail shipping has increased as well.
In 2009, fewer than 11,000 tanker cars full of oil were shipped across the United States. The projected number for the past year was more than 400,000 cars.
BNSF spokesman Matthew Jones said Thursday that the company is handling eight trains loaded with crude oil a day on its entire system, and is averaging one a day headed from the Bakken to the Pacific Northwest.
He added that the industry as a whole has reduced the incidence of hazardous material released due to problems with rail shipping by 91 percent.
While the figures for 2013 were not yet ready, Jones said, 99.99 percent of all hazardous material shipped on BNSF trains were delivered without any released material.
"That number shows we have made significant progress in reducing the likelihood of hazmat incidents, but we also understand and saw (this) week that incidents can occur, so we work very closely with communities on our system to be prepared in the event of an incident," he said.
Parenteau said it can happen in Havre. Along with other derailments on the Hi-Line in the last few years, a three-car derailment in the Havre yard Nov. 1, 2010, included a car containing crude oil. While it did not catch fire, and Parenteau said comparatively little oil leaked, oil car derailments can and do occur.
Rail problems, chances of fire
The fire Monday - caused when the derailment of a grain train knocked over cars from another train carrying Bakken crude oil - caused no deaths, although concern about toxic smoke from the fire led to the evacuation of nearby Casselton.
A July derailment of a train carrying Bakken crude in the Quebec town of Lac Megantic in Canada near Maine was more tragic. The resulting explosion and fire killed 47 people and flattened buildings in the town near the derailment.
Another derailment of a train carrying Bakken crude in November in Alabama also exploded, causing no deaths.
Concerns also have been raised that the older versions of tanker cars carrying the crude oil - known as DOT-111s - are prone to rupture, with some calling for implementation of proposals to upgrade those cars.
The U.S. government this week also released a warning about the oil coming from the Bakken. That oil is more likely to ignite if it is released, the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration said in its warning.
Looking for an alternative
Some people are looking for an alternative to shipping Bakken crude by rail.
Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell, saying his town "dodged a bullet" when the derailment happened outside of town, called for a conversation with federal officials about finding alternate ways to transport the crude oil. Shipping by pipeline has to be a safer option, he said.
Others have called on President Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, proposed to transport oil from the tar sands in Alberta to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. That pipeline also would have an onramp to take Bakken oil from Montana and North Dakota.
The line from Canada into Montana and further into the United States requires approval by the U.S. State Department, as it crosses an international boundary.
The southern section of the pipeline, which did not require Department of State approval, is almost ready to start transporting crude oil. That leg is expected to ramp up Jan. 22.
The northern leg - and the southern leg, as well - have received opposition from many groups due to concerns about the impact the pipeline, and the tar sands oil, will have on the environment.
Montana's congressional delegates have, and continue, to call on Obama to approve the northern leg of the pipeline.
Dan Malessa, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the senator works to provide equipment and training for emergency responders and also continues to push for the pipeline.
"Jon also continues to support the Keystone XL pipeline, provided the pipeline is built to the highest possible safety standards, because the Bakken is a critical part of Montana's economy," Malessa said.
Alee Lockman said U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., also continues to push for the pipeline, "which would serve not only as a safe and efficient way to transport Bakken oil from Montana, but as an important job creator for our state as well."
Preparing for the worst
Local officials say they hope disaster plans they are putting in place never have to be used, but they are preparing those plans in case a derailment of Bakken crude does occur in north-central Montana.
Hill County Commission Chair Mike Wendland said the county emergency and disaster officials and the Local Emergency Planning Committee are working on what to do if a train carrying Bakken crude does derail.
"We know the potential for disaster if a train derails, whether we have a fireball like in North Dakota or just a spill of oil, but either way it could be a huge concern ... ," he said, adding that where a derailment occurs changes the picture, as it did in North Dakota.
"If it's out in the country, concern isn't quite as high, but if it's at the crossing in Rudyard, then I'm a little more concerned," he said.
Havre Mayor Tim Solomon said the city government also is preparing for the chance of a derailment.
"We do have concerns, same as every other city that they go through," he said.
Parenteau said the planning is extensive - how to set up a perimeter, how to notify people what they need to do, and helping them evacuate if that was necessary.
"So we don't have to try to figure out what we need to do while things are burning and exploding," he said.
Responding to a disaster
Havre Fire Chief Dave Sheppard said that if a derailment happened in his department's jurisdiction, Havre firefighters would respond.
Sheppard said the Havre responders would be working with the BNSF response team, which is trained extensively in responding to hazardous material derailments, as well as a trailer containing equipment specifically designed for fighting fires resulting from derailments. Havre is one of several locations in the state where they are strategically placed.
Parenteau said the state government also has hazardous material response teams - the nearest is in Great Falls - which could respond.
Sheppard said his firefighters receive training in responding to hazardous material disasters, although the department's supply of equipment to use in such a response is limited.
Jones said BNSF works across its system to help train local responders, including training provided in October to the Havre firefighters specific to tanker car disasters, and also provides scholarships to help emergency responders receive additional training.
He said what the response to any disaster would be would depend on the disaster itself.
Responding to a disaster on the Hi-Line
Both Parenteau and Sheppard said one of the top priorities would be to notify the public and local officials as quickly as possible.
Sheppard said, whether the best response would be to "hunker down" and wait or evacuate, people would need to know immediately.
Parenteau said planning how to handle an evacuation - in the case of a Bakken crude oil derailment and fire, it could require the evacuation of all of Havre - is a top priority for the LEPC right now. He added that the committee is planning a tabletop exercise for early this year to test implementing its updated evacuation procedures.
Along with notifying all officials and the public, the emergency responders would set and maintain a perimeter around the disaster, trying to minimize the damage.
Parenteau said the problems could be manyfold - even if a fire did not occur, thousands of gallons of oil spilling onto the ground or into the Milk River would create another kind of disaster. Especially if it hit the Milk River, he said.
In some cases, as was done in Casselton, the best option is to let a crude oil fire burn itself out. Parenteau said that putting out the fire could result in an immense amount of material that then would have to be removed.
He said another key, along with the local officials and emergency response teams being prepared, is the people who live along the Hi-Line being prepared. People can call him, or visit http://fema.gov or the "Ready Montana" pages at http://montana.gov, to receive more information on how to prepare.
People need to have things ready - including cash, prescriptions, and an idea where they could go - if they were told they had to leave in 10 minutes, Parenteau said.
Jones said another thing local residents need to know is how to contact BNSF if there is a problem - a derailment, "trespassers, an issue with a crossing, anything at all."
He said people can call the BNSF Resource Operations Center at 1-800-832-5452 to report any problem to the railway.