March 5 seemed like a typical day in the tri-state area. A large train, filled with tank cars carrying an oil/frack mixture from the Bakken region of North Dakota, passed through Grant County, traveling through communities like Bagley, Glen Haven, Cassville, Potosi, much like roughly 50 other trains do each and every week.
Other than a temporary traffic stop by those who were looking to cross the train tracks to get the Mississippi River at the same time, no passing thought was probably given to that train.
Minutes after it left Grant County and Wisconsin, attention quickly went to that train as 21 tanker cars from that 105-car train left the tracks in a derailment south of Galena.
As part of a regional response, Grant County’s Hazmat Team, which includes members from Lancaster, Platteville, Dickeyville and Cuba City emergency responder departments rushed to the scene, followed by tanker tender units from Hazel Green, Cuba City, Jamestown and Dickeyville fire departments.
“It was chaotic at first because it was in a remote location,” said Grant County Emergency Management Director Steve Braun, a member of the hazardous materials team that went to Galena Thursday. Braun said part of the problem was that there was no direct access to the scene of the derailment, leading to delays of getting responders to the derailment.
By the time responders got to the scene, the tanker cars, which had been smoldering and slowly burning, became more and more engulfed. With limited resources, including limited amounts of firefighting foam that is effective in a fuel spill like this, crews were pulled back.
“They made a great decision to pull everyone back,” Braun said, noting that soon after firefighters left the scene, several of the tanker cars started exploding. The departments needed more foam, needed more equipment, and “it just wasn’t the right time” to fight the blaze. “They didn’t have the resources to effectively fight the fire,” said Braun.
So how would such a derailment unfold if it were to happen in Grant County? How much access would area responders have to sections of track, and do they have the equipment to handle such an accident?
“I think we have it worse,” Braun said about access to rail lines that run along the western edge of the county. “There are many places where the railroad setbacks are right up against the river and a bluff……There are quite a few places where you can go where, for miles, you do not have access to the railroad tracks.”
“It’s not just a possibility, but a probability that if we had a derailment, it would be in a place like that,” Braun continued.
What about equipment and resources? One of the most important items needed in combating a fire involving a volatile fuel like Bakken oil is firefighting foam. Braun said that currently, the county’s foam bank has two pallets of multi-purpose foam, which has a much longer shelf life, longer than the AFFF foam they had before.
Various fire departments have their own stock as well, and help rotate out the foam in the foam bank, to make sure it does not expire, but the amount on-hand is not enough. “For a magnitude of a train car fire, there is not enough here to make a meaningful impact,” Braun said.
What about the railroad?
Last summer, Grant County fire chiefs met with Derek Lampkin, manager of Hazardous Materials Field Operations and Emergency Response for Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway, to discuss what kind of response the railroad would have for any theoretical train accident that might take place in Grant County. Lampkin told the fire chiefs about $5 billion BNSF was spending for emergency equipment and training, with equipment being placed within two-hour radius of tracks carrying the more volatile oil mix.
“You do not have the equipment to fight these fires,” Lampkin said last May. He noted that what the fire department would do is likely help with the perimeter at an accident scene.
Watching two recent accidents that took place - last week’s derailment outside of Galena, as well as an ethanol spill outside of Dubuque last month - Braun said the average timeframe from an incident to deployment of rail staff and equipment was around six hours.
“Something else needs to be done in that emergency, we cannot just wait for the railroad,” Braun said of that turnaround time. “If that’s burning in downtown Cassville, or one of our river communities, that is obviously not quick enough.”
Braun also stated that the focus of the railroad’s response crews, and what local emergency responders would want to do is different. “What I took out of that was that the railroad’s responsibility is to handle the railroad and get the railroad open again, and all of their resources and manpower is geared towards getting that rail line open again as quickly as possible. They pretty much told us protecting our community is our responsibility.”
Braun said that BNSF has been great offering training for departments - a derailment exercise was held just a few months ago near Scales Mound - but training alone is not enough to combat an accident like this.
“There are absolutely things we can do for training, but our real issue here is equipment,” Braun stated. “We have have some pretty major shortfalls when it comes to firefighting foam, to river boom, to just about, there are a lot of things we can use to stop a spill from becoming worse, from escalating into a fire, or contaminating the environment worse.”
Braun noted that six hours is quite a long time to allow contaminant to leak into rivers. In the case of the Mississippi, strong current can take that material downstream pretty fast. Jo Daviess County in Illinois has a skimmer to pull oil or fuel off the surface, there just are no river booms around to contain a spill.
“Right now, we just don’t have those tools here, and we don’t have the funding here yet.”
Braun said he thinks some of the onus should fall on the rail companies.
“They are introducing a really formidable threat into our communities,” Braun said of the volatile fuel in the tank cars. For example, the train in the Galena train held 683,000 gallons of oil mix. “With all these profits the oil companies are seeing, maybe there are things they could do to help our communities prepare for emergencies.”
Later Braun went back to the “enhanced threat” this increased train traffic is bringing to the region. “There is obviously money being made here, but I also think there is an increased risk to the communities. I think there is more that could be done to help those communities prepare for that risk.”
Another item Lampkin was touting was the fact that BNSF was buying the improved DOT-1232 tanker cars to improve safety. In recent accidents that have received national attention, all have involved DOT-1232 cars.
“I was pretty disheartened to see the major derailments we have had that have had fires have been these improved tank cars,” Braun said.
Federal help in the distance
Braun had been talking with Congressman Ron Kind just two days before about legislation Kind had proposed to help give area emergency responders more tools to help combat a potential accident.
Called the Railroad Emergency Services Preparedness, Operational Needs, and Safety Evaluation Act, or RESPONSE for short, the action would call for FEMA to work with different agencies, technical experts, emergency responders and the private sector to review training, resources, best practices, and other needs related to emergency responders to railroad incidents.
“Wisconsin has many of the best first responders in the country, but we must make sure they are fully prepared in the event of a hazardous materials rail accident,” Kind said in a release on RESPONSE.
Kind pointed to the fact that in 2013, a train that passed through Wisconsin later derailed in Quebec, the resulting explosion killed 47 people.
The amount of trains like that traveling through Wisconsin has increased 4,000 percent since 2008, and projections are even more trains will move through the area in the future.
Also in 2013, the amount of oil spilled in the country was 1.4 million gallons, which was more than all that was spilled from 1975 to 2012.
Braun hopes that part of RESPONSE is that it provides funding for things like booms and foam. “Those river communities are small, they don’t have a lot of spare room in their budgets,” Braun said of trying to fund those needed items locally.
While hopeful of what that legislation may bring, Braun is realistic that help is likely a long way off.
“I think the time lag will be years,” Braun said.
Bagley moves forward with plan
Braun has also been assisting in a response plan for the Village of Bagley to deal with any potential evacuation and response if there was an incident that took place on the tracks in the community.
That plan is being drawn up by Bagley Village President David ‘Buck’ Schott and Bagley Fire Chief Scott Myhre. Schott noted that one of the big concerns in dealing with any sort of accident or disaster is that, with the rail line bisecting the community, many of the people who reside on one side of the tracks would have no direct way of leaving if the railroad crossings were blocked.
Working on the plan for the past few months, Schott stated that other projects jumped ahead of the plan in the immediate moment, but last week’s derailment returned it to focus, and he hopes he and Myhre will have it complete within the next few weeks.
The new response plan deals with how to move residents out of the community if their transportation is cut off, Schott stating they plan on talking with a local busing service on how to get quick deployment. It will also update older plans, getting up-to-date contact information so they can check to make sure residents are alerted, and checked on if there was an evacuation. Schott said that the earlier plan had contact information that was largely out-of-date.
Schott said they would be working with River Ridge Schools a possible shelter if there needed to be an evacuation.
Schott stated that Bagley has always been good at preparing for disaster, having worked for years on its response to flooding, but is now focused on what could happen if there was a train derailment.
“You never think it’s going to happen to you,” Schott stated, but added they know they need to be prepared if the event ever would happen. “I hope we never have to use it (the plan).”
Safer for travel?
In addition to preparing for a possible rail accident, there is another option being pushed by legislators like Kind - to process and stabilize the oil mix before it is loaded onto rail cars that travel the country.
In a letter dated July 28, 2014, Kind asked Federal Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to examine requiring all Bakken oil be stabilized before transport.
Stabilizing uses heat and pressure to force light hydrocarbon molecules, like ethane, butane and propane, out of the liquid crude. The process reduces the vapor pressure of crude oil, making it less volatile and therefore safer to transport by pipeline or rail tank car. The removed items can be reliquified and transported on its own to be utilized.
Stabilizing may also help remove some of the chemicals used in the fracking process, which some experts say leads to the volatility of the oil mix.
Oil companies have balked at processing the oil mix, stating it is too costly and that it has no measurable effect on lowering the oil mix volatility. But most pipelines that carry oil require that the fuel be stabilized before it can enter the pipeline.
Last year, the North Dakota Industrial Board reviewed a proposal to require operators of the 11,000 shale oil wells in that state to stabilize the oil before it is transported. In the end, the board approved rules that require conditioning the oil - to reduce light gases to reduce the tank pressure to 13.7 pounds per square inch.
Those new rules go into effect April 1.
But many critics state that conditioning is not as effective as stabilizing in making the oil mix less volatile. The Dakota Resource Council, an environmental group, noted that the 2013 Quebec train that exploded had a vapor pressure of 9.3.
“The only solution for safety is stabilization, which evaporates and re-liquefies nearly all of the petroleum gases for separate delivery to refiners,” said David Thomas, Contributing Editor of the Railway Age trade journal.
Federal regulators are continuing to study where or not to require stabilization of Bakken oil before it is transported.