Railways are now carrying highly explosive Bakken crude oil, making emergency managers' jobs even tougher.
Emergency managers have been asked in recent years to do a lot more with fewer resources. That job got even tougher with the advent of oil shipments from the Bakken shale region of North Dakota via rail around the country.
Bakken is obtained by hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling, which has increased since 2000 and can be highly explosive. And there have been several train derailments recently, including one in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013 that killed 47 people.
In the U.S., a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in West Virginia on Feb. 16, 2015, sending orange flames skyward for days. There have been other derailments, and there’s concern of a scene like the one in Quebec happening in a major U.S. city, including those in Pennsylvania. A report by PublicSource said 1.5 million people are potentially at risk if a train carrying crude oil derails and catches fire there.
Emergency managers are concerned and doing what they can to mitigate a derailment and possible explosion in their backyards. There’s training available but questions remain: Do emergency managers have all the information they need? Can one locale handle an explosion caused by a 30,000-gallon oil tanker incident?
“From a people standpoint, the worst-case scenario is if you have one or more of these cars breach and start on fire,” said Rick Edinger, assistant chief of the Chesterfield County, Va., Fire and EMS Department and a hazardous materials expert. “There’s an ongoing debate about how volatile crude oil is. The feds and industry are coming to realize now that it really depends on where the oil comes from.”
Because of that and other reasons, it’s important to understand the nature of the product, according to Robert Gardner, technological hazards coordinator for the Maine Emergency Management Agency. Emergency managers should study lessons learned and best practices and have safety data sheets. This information should be part of a risk assessment that lets first responders develop agency-specific response protocols that ensure responder safety and accounts for those exposed to potential fire.
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Regional planning groups such as local emergency planning committees should review the routes that trains may use and identify sensitive receptors like water supplies, fisheries or agricultural areas.
There’s ongoing debate about what information communities and emergency managers should know about train routes and shipments of crude.
“Flow studies have been around for a long time and that’s an old tool that could be applied to figure out what’s going through your community,” Edinger said. “You may not have it down to the gallon and the day, but you have a great sense of what’s coming through and frankly, from a hazmat standpoint, I don’t need to know a specific time, I just need to know the worst-case scenario.”
Gardner said that in terms of actual shipments, there’s never enough information available. “We may know when a unit over a million gallons may be coming or where they are traveling, but those trains carrying fewer than 30 cars become unknowns,” he wrote in an email.
Some railroads have systems in place that allow for real-time knowledge of what any particular train may be carrying and the tanks’ location in the train.
Gardner said planning for Bakken crude oil transport is no different from any other hazardous material or even natural gas because you have an assessment and understand what you’re planning for and the role of those involved. But he acknowledged that the volume of the product is a concern.
The biggest concern for many is that one or more cars loaded with crude breach can start a fire. “Once you get past anything the size of a 9,000-gallon oil tanker, very few departments have the resources or capability to mitigate anything bigger,” Edinger said. “If you’re talking about a 30,000-tank car incident, even that would be beyond the capabilities of most departments in the initial stages, anyway.”
New federal rules instituted last year require carriers to notify state emergency response commissions about the transport routes of cars carrying at least 1 million gallons of crude from Bakken. But some emergency managers say that doesn’t go far enough and doesn’t include the typical load of 30,000 gallons.
Training is available for mitigating such a circumstance, but managing the volume of an incident that size could be daunting, Edinger said. “With the exception of a couple of departments, most can’t afford to stock and maintain the resources you would need to even approach doing something with one of these incidents.”
Gardner said the local Maine railroads have worked to educate first responders on rail safety. “This is of particular importance as rail employees have the specific knowledge of cars and engines that not all responders have, but need [in order] to have a safe response.”
Gardner said it would help if the railroads could assist with the cost of the “gap pieces” of response equipment that have been identified as needed through the assessments. “It would be an immense help to many of the small volunteer agencies that we have in Maine and throughout the nation,” he wrote.
An examination of the tank car fleet that carries flammable liquids may be necessary as well. Canada has banned certain cars that are known to be unsafe in crash situations, but the U.S. has lagged. Part of the reason is the price. It would cost up to $1 billion to retrofit all of the 300,000 DOT-111 tank cars in use and take years.
“The dialog is going in a good direction,” Edinger said. “There seems to be agreement within public safety and the rail industry that we can do better with the construction of cars and that will improve, and perhaps prevent some incidents from happening.”