The exponential growth of crude oil shipments by railroad has meant a tremendous increase in the amount of railroad tanker cars carrying oil through Crawford County.
Hundreds of the black tanker cars can now be seen on the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroad tracks, which run in a corridor along the Mississippi River from DeSoto to Bridgeport. Through most of that route, the tracks are often just a stone’s throw from the river.
Tanker cars have always been present on the tracks, but the expansion of oil production in North Dakota and western Canada has greatly increased their numbers. Nationally, crude oil shipments in railroad tanker cars expanded from about 9,000 in 2009 to more than 400,000 tanker carloads in 2013, according to the American Railroad Association.
The growth of crude oil shipping by rail has not been without problems. Accidents caused by derailments have led to death and destruction in some cases. There have been four major accidents involving crude oil shipped by rail in the U.S. and Canada in the last year. In other cases, leaking oil has polluted the environment.
The latest problem involves the volume of trains filled with crude oil tanker cars shutting down the rails for shipments of other commodities—most notably, the grain harvest of the plains and more locally coal shipments to the Dairyland Power Plant.
The biggest tragedy involving rail shipment of crude oil occurred in Canada where a train loaded with crude oil exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec. The accident and the resulting inferno killed 47 people and destroyed a large part of the town. Another train accident in North Dakota involving crude oil being hauled by BNSF resulted in a massive fire that proved impossible for firefighters to control. Another train carrying crude oil derailed and burst into flames spilling large amounts of oil into a wetland in the process.
In addition to the headline grabbing accidents, hundreds of other incidents have occurred. An oil tanker car in Minnesota leaked about half its contents (12,000 gallons) along the tracks from Red Wing to Winona in February. Much as they do on the Wisconsin side, the railroad tracks run along the Mississippi River and cross several tributaries. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was involved in monitoring the situation.
Whether exploding, burning or leaking the oil, tanker cars can present problems to the communities through which they pass. Is the State of Wisconsin and Crawford County prepared for the large number of tanker cars transporting crude oil on rail lines these days? The answer to that question can vary quite a bit, depending on who’s being asked and what is meant by the word “prepared.”
Crawford County Director of Emergency Government Roger Martin is certainly aware of the situation and is working on being ready for any potential accidents. He noted the tracks run the entire length of the county from DeSoto to Bridgeport and there is some potential for an accident in that rail corridor every day. Martin knows what he sees on the tracks in a given day in terms of trains, but lacks actual numbers. He estimated more than 40 trains run through the county daily.
Actually, the number may have increased lately. BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth stated there was currently on average of 60 to 70 trains per day passing through the county.
It’s not just crude oil in tanker cars that poses a risk as it travels down the railroad track in Crawford County, Martin noted transportation of ethanol is just as big of a problem. Add to oil and ethanol is a host of other dangerous chemicals that can be transported in tanker cars.
Crawford County Emergency Government is planning a full-scale training exercise in 2014 around possible railroad accidents and incidents, according to Martin. The exercise will include a tabletop exercise “for the brass” and a hands-on exercise for the firefighters, EMS and law enforcement officials who must respond to such an incident.
Martin and others familiar with the situation acknowledged that BNSF does offer training opportunities to firefighters responsible for responding to accidents on the railroad right-of-way. Martin hopes to access some of that training for local firefighters.
BNSF’s McBeth confirmed the railroad is committed to “…working and training with local emergency responders on Hazmat response training and by supporting them with specialized response equipment…”
BNSF provides free railroad Hazmat response training to 3,500 to 4,000 local emergency responders every year in communities across their network and has provided training to more than 65,000 emergency responders since 1996, according to McBeth.
“BNSF has long been committed to partnering with local emergency responders and will continue those efforts,” McBeth stated.
The railroad company also responds to accident with its own Hazmat experts and contract Hazmat responders to respond at the scene of an emergency.
Local fire departments last had some hands-on Hazmat training provided by BNSF instructors about seven or eight years ago, according to Martin.
The Crawford County Director of Emergency Government and several area fire chiefs acknowledged in the event of severe fire involving oil tank cars, the local firefighters would be hard pressed to do more than evacuate residents and others from the area and attempt to stop the fire from spreading to other property.
One asset that Martin would employ in the event of such an accident are the Hazmat teams based in Viroqua and LaCrosse. Both teams are made up of trained volunteers from local departments and can be assembled within an hour, according to Keith Tveit, Wisconsin Emergency Management’s Coordinator of Emergency Fire Services.
In addition to firefighting capabilities the teams are trained in a variety of other Hazmat situations including containing leaking oil, Tveit explained.
Despite the preparation, many like Prairie du Chien Fire Chief Harry Remz are skeptical that a multiple tanker car oil fire can be extinguished.
“There’s not enough foam in the state to put it out,” Remz said.
Other local fire chiefs like Seneca’s Shawn Lenzendorf agreed that the local response would be limited to evacuation and trying to protect other property from being involved in the spreading fire.
Although their numbers, equipment and training may be limited, state authorities are convinced the initial response by local departments is extremely important.
“Honestly it starts and ends locally,” Tveit said of the rail corridor accidents.
Prairie du Chien Fire Chief Harry Remz, Seneca Fire Chief Shawn Lenzendorf and Ferryville and DeSoto Fire Chief Chris Mussatti all seemed to have given the possibility of a crude oil tanker car fire or spill some thought.
Both Mussatti and Remz praised the work of BNSF in improving the railroad tracks and bed. Mussatti noted there had not been a derailment in the DeSoto-Ferryville area since the early 90s.
The quality of track maintenance is much better under the direction of BNSF, according to both chiefs.
“There are no issues with maintenance,” Mussatti said. “In the last 10 years, the situation is much, much improved.”
All the local chiefs agreed a major accident involving crude oil tanker cars would necessitate mutual aid. In addition to aid from neighboring fire departments, a call to Crawford County Emergency Government Director Roger Martin would get more resources like the Hazmat teams from Viroqua and LaCrosse activated.
Is the crude oil currently being shipped a particular danger to ignite in an accident?
From the Chairperson of the National Transportation Safety Board, Deborah Hersman, to the local fire chiefs, there seems to be almost universal agreement.
“One problem is that oil from the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota is not like other crudes,” Hersman explained to a National Public Radio reporter. “It’s lighter and its volatile natural gases tend to ignite easily.”
Wisconsin Emergency Management’s Tveit also cited the crude oil’s volatility as a problem in rail accidents. He noted while the crude oil stands in the tanker cars it separates with the heavier tar-like substances gathering in the bottom and lighter more explosive elements, like benzene, gathering at the top.
However, its not just the crude oil contents of the tanker cars that are dangerous, in many cases it’s the tanker cars themselves. The old DOT 111 cars are thin-walled and do not have reinforced ends. A design developed in 2011 and favored by the rail industry features thicker walls and reinforced ends. However only about 14,000 of the almost 92,000 tanker cars used to transport crude oil today are built to the new design standards. The others are DOT 111 tanker cars.
Railroads have been asking that the federal government mandate the stronger 2011 design for all tanker cars being used. However to date, that has not been done.
In an unprecedented move, BNSF announced last month that it intended to purchase 5,000 new cars built to an even stronger standard than the 2011 design. At present, the railroads do not own tanker cars. The shippers own the tanker cars.
With all this attention to safety and the inherent danger of shipping crude oil by rail, one statement made by Roger Martin when we began the discussion of shipping crude oil through Crawford County stands out.
“I just pray that nothing happens here,” Martin said of the crude oil accidents that have already occurred elsewhere.
Another statement by the DeSoto and Ferryville Fire Chief Chris Dussatti also speaks to the resolve of the local volunteer firefighters to respond to a crude oil fire or spill.
“We’re as prepared as we possibly can be,” Dussatti said of the local unit’s readiness.