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Railroads, Emergency Responders Prepared in Event of Oil Spill in Texas

All-hazard training prepares first responders for the worst-case scenario.

by Brandon Mulder, Midland Reporter-Telegram / August 10, 2015
Training is key to an oil spill response. Shutterstock

(TNS) - Each day, freight trains slice through the center of the city at a swift 70 miles an hour, carrying industry goods eastward and westward. With the explosion of heavy train traffic stemming from the Permian Basin oil boom, the threat of rail-related accidents looms larger.

Earlier this summer, a freight train slipped off its tracks in Odessa. Ten rail cars carrying hydraulic fracturing sand derailed and fell sideways along the track. About a week ago, Midland County Fire Marshal Dale Little saw the derailed cars still belly-up, causing him to ask the critical question: “What if that had been oil or a chemical?”

Throughout the past 10 years, 109 hazmat-carrying train cars have been involved in accidents, according to data rail lines report to the Federal Railroad Administration. In that same period, five instances of derailments have been reported inside Ector County. To the east, in Howard County, 54 cars carrying hazardous materials have been involved in accidents with six instances of derailments in the last decade, according to federal data.

But in Midland County, not a single derailment episode has been reported.

“With all the hazard disaster training, we teach that you always have to plan on the worst-case scenario,” Little said. “Anything can happen. When you deal with disaster work, every day you go without a disaster is one day closer to one.”

By that logic, if Midland’s vehicle traffic continues to thicken, causing an uptick in vehicle-train related accidents that are known to cause derailments, that day might be fast approaching. In the last five years, the stretch of railway between Sweetwater and Pecos led the nation in vehicle-train collisions in 2013, according to Union Pacific.

Last spring, a string of derailed trains carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale caused explosions and prompted national scrutiny over whether safety regulations are adequate as rail continues to be a more popular vehicle for oil.

“If they do turn over, first thing they’re going to do is burn. You’ve got that big plume of smoke going someplace,” Little said. “If it’s crude oil, then you can have a gas buildup in one of the tanks and that can make it explode.”

In such a situation, Midland emergency responders have tools to determine how they would respond, including software that considers several variables -- including wind direction, load contents and humidity -- for determining an evacuation radius. Union Pacific also released a smart phone app earlier this year for first responders that shows load contents of each train car using the car’s identification number.

“We work very closely with the emergency responders in just about all of the communities we go through,” said UP spokesperson Jeff DeGraff. “We have regular communications with them advising them of the different products that may be rolling through their area so that they can be prepared should something happen.”

However, information on load contents and routes is considered proprietary, and rail lines are not required to divulge the contents the are transporting.Yet, if the amount of material passing through meets a federally mandated threshold, rail lines are required to give notification to local authorities, DeGraff said.

Despite the national attention that railroad safety has drawn, DeGraff said derailments like the recent one in Odessa are uncommon.

“We’ve done a lot in the way of strengthening our infrastructure to prevent derailments, and our derailments have gone down over the last several years,” he said. And with the emergence of oil and gas pipelines that crisscross the Basin, rail has momentarily become a less popular mode of transportation for crude.

The contents aboard many of the freight trains these days are the goods for industries supporting drilling activity -- pipe, frac sand and gravel,  along with commercial products, chemicals and plastic.

“We have a wide variety of items that are moving through the area. As far as hazardous materials go, it’s actually a small portion of what we move,” DeGraff said.

At any rate, the Midland Fire Department’s Hazmat team has had training in the area of volatile spillages under what Little calls the All-Hazard Approach to Emergency Management.

“If a tank did blow, and we had an explosion on it, then I have no doubt that the fire department could handle it,” he said. “We’ve got some really good departments around this area.”


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