Oil Train Disaster Plans: A Burning Need for the Truth about Oil Train Fires

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Oil Train Disaster Plans: A Burning Need for the Truth about Oil Train Fires

An oil train burns near the Oregon town of Mosier after derailing Friday. (Photo: Alan Berner/The Seattle Times via AP)

In the year since five fiery oil train disasters in the US and Canada brought national attention to the threat from trains hauling explosive crude oil, the rail industry has embarked on a high profile public relations exercise to reassure the public that deadly disasters can be averted by emergency responders. In fact, the reality of oil train accidents -- and the unanimous opinion of fire officials and federal rail safety experts -- proves that there is no fighting an oil train derailment and fire. The scene of a crude oil derailment and fire is an uncontrollable fire. All firefighters can do is evacuate the area and wait for the fire to burn itself out.

Images from oil train firefighter training circulated by railroad and oil companies show firefighters standing close to burning tank cars, training hoses on small fires. But as Fairfield, Iowa, Fire Chief Scott Vaughan described in 2014, “If there was a spill or a fire, our big thing would be containment and evacuation,” he said. “We train for it, but training and actually doing are two different things.” Very simply, there is no controlling an oil train fire.

In 2013 in Lac Megantic, Quebec, 47 people died when an oil train derailed and caught fire in the center of a small Canadian town. More than 1.5 million gallons of crude oil spilled in flowing “rivers of fire”, creating pool fires and filling sewers. Blocks away uncontrollable fires erupted from drains and manholes and more than 30 building were destroyed. Despite 1,000 firefighters responding from across Quebec and Maine the fire burned for two days.

When an oil train derails at any speed over the puncture velocity of roughly 10 miles an hour (for a common CPC-1232 tank car) a dozen or so cars typically come off the tracks, decouple and are thrown from their wheels. If tank cars are punctured, possibly by something on the ground or the couplers on the ends of the cars, the crude (either Bakken or diluted tar sands, both highly volatile) can easily self-ignite or find an ignition source.

Observations published by FEMA from County Emergency Manager Dave Rogness on the oil train explosion that rocked the small town of Casselton, ND, describe the derailment and the size of the spill:

On December 30, 2013 in Casselton, a BNSF westbound train with 112 grain cars went off the tracks. Thirteen of the cars derailed, and one fell on the eastbound tracks. Within two minutes, a BNSF eastbound crude oil train hit that car. That caused two front locomotives, a hopper car, and twenty cars on the eastbound train to derail, and 18 of them ruptured, exploded, and released 450,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil.

First responders to the Casselton accident were forced to pull far back from the scene because of the intense heat:

The command post was originally set up one-quarter mile from the scene, but they had to pull back to a half mile because it was too hot for the responders even inside their rigs.

A similar situation occurred in Galena, Illinois, where the fire from the March 2015 derailment burned for days. First responders, who unloaded emergency equipment nearby to fight the fire, were forced to abandon $10,000 in equipment on the scene when they pulled back to a safe distance.

The DOT Emergency Response Guidebook is quite clear on the initial response to a single tank car disaster: “If tank, rail car or tank truck is involved in a fire, isolate for 800 meters (1/2 mile) in all directions” But this direction is for a single tank car, and oil train disasters almost always involve many more than one car.

Emergency response to oil trains traveling across the US and Canada is left to municipal fire departments. Few fire departments have the manpower, training, or equipment to respond to more than a single burning 10,000-gallon tank truck of crude. An oil train tank car carries triple that, and most oil train disasters involve way more than a single tank car. As North Dakota Emergency Manager Rogness describes:

“There were few options for fighting the fire. Water should not be put on exploding crude oil. Firefighters did not have enough foam in four counties together to put the fire out, plus the foam would freeze in the cold. Dry chemicals were not available. The only choice was to let it burn, which BNSF responders said would take about 12 hours. It took more than 24. Political leaders were skeptical of the strategy.

In fact, federal guidelines for emergency responders for oil train fires state very clearly that the only option is to let the oil burn itself out.

In the event of an incident that may involve the release of thousands of gallons of product and ignition of tank cars of crude oil in a unit train, most emergency response organizations will not have the available resources, capabilities or trained personnel to safely and effectively extinguish a fire or contain a spill of this magnitude.

In 2015 in Mount Carbon, West Virginia, tens of thousands of gallons of burning crude escaped punctured cars, flowing into the nearby river and forming a pool fire under other tank cars. Under the intense heat those additional cars began to rupture and explode. A report on oil train safety by the Interagency Board, which coordinates local, state and federal agencies on emergency response, described the situation on the ground during the 2015 West Virginia oil train accident:

During the derailment sequence, two tank cars were initially punctured releasing more than 50,000 gallons of crude oil. Of the 27 tank cars that derailed, 19 cars became involved in the pileup and post-accident pool fire. The pool fire caused thermal tank shell failures on 13 tank cars that otherwise survived the initial accident.

Emergency responders at the Mount Carbon, WV incident reported the first thermal failure about 25 minutes after the accident. Within the initial 65 minutes of the incident, at least four tank car failures with large fireball eruptions occurred. The 13th and last thermal failure occurred more than 10 hours after the accident.

With oil trains continuing to run across North America, it’s a question of when, not if, we will experience the next fatal oil train accident. As Christopher A. Hart of the National Transportation Safety Board explained in January 2016, “We have been lucky thus far that derailments involving flammable liquids in America have not yet occurred in a populated area… But an American version of Lac-Megantic could happen at any time.”

Realistic oil train disaster preparations would not involve firefighters spraying tank cars for cameras. The first, most important step would be to recognize -- as emergency responders across the country freely admit -- that no municipal fire department can control an oil train fire.

An upcoming Department of Transportation rulemaking is intended to provide oil train information and preparedness (materials and training) for first responders around the country. Unfortunately, that new rule has been delayed for years and the draft rules are not expected until late 2017. It will be years before the final rules are released, leaving dangerous tank cars, volatile crude, and unprepared communities to bear the risks of oil train traffic.

And thorough reporting by DeSmog Blog on the weak existing regulatory standards and the oil and rail industry’s failure to meet them demonstrates, there have been no improvements in the safety of the 100,000 unsafe tank cars in the US fleet. The steps oil shippers have promised to improve the safety of oil trains are as hollow and inadequate as the promise of firefighters dousing burning oil tank cars.

Real emergency preparedness for oil trains would involve preparing for massive amounts of spilled crude oil by developing evacuation protocols for the 25 million Americans who live in the oil train blast zone. It would include modeling the flow of burning crude, likely toxic plumes and wildfires. It would also require much better information sharing and coordination with emergency officials on oil train hazardous cargo, routes, and scheduling, information which railroads have strongly resisted sharing.

According to the National Fire Protection Association 69 percent of the 1.1 million firefighters in North America serve in volunteer fire departments. They are not trained or equipped for effective oil train emergency response – in fact, the scale and danger of an oil train fire puts our emergency responders, like the millions who live along the tracks, at unacceptable risk. The railroads are providing some highly touted emergency training to a tiny sliver of this massive force, but the reality is that these efforts are staged to misinform the public, not prepare emergency responders.

Federal emergency response guidance and fire chiefs have long recognized that there is no effective emergency response to a crude oil derailment fire event. If even one tank car of crude oil is involved in a fire, federal guidelines are clear that firefighters should pull back half a mile and let it burn. And that is another good reason that oil trains are too dangerous for the rails.

Many thanks to Fred Millar for his research and analysis.

Matt Krogh

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