December 19, 2013

Oil trains raise concerns in small towns, cities

Fears are stoked by the July crash in Lac Megantic, but a review shows the number of accidents has remained steady and most involve small quantities of oil.

By Matthew Brown And Josh Funk
The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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A BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil west of Wolf Point, Mont. As common as the mile-long trains have become across the U.S. and Canada, dozens of officials in the towns and cities where they travel say they are concerned they are not adequately prepared to handle an emergency.

The Associated Press

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Chris Dschaak, a volunteer firefighter in Roosevelt County, Mont., and mayor-elect of the town of Wolf Point, talks about concerns over oil trains passing through his community. Dschaak says the fire department’s limited supply of specialized foam to fight oil fires, stored in the barrels to the left, would be quickly exhausted by a major oil train accident.

The Associated Press

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One of the first places trains heading west pass through is Wolf Point, an agricultural town of about 2,600 people on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

On a line historically dominated by grain and freight shipments, crude trains are now a daily sight. Horns announce their approach as locomotives pulling 3 million gallons of crude per shipment pass just a block from the town’s business district and only yards from the public high school.

Emergency officials in Montana and beyond generally praised the railroad industry’s responsiveness to derailments.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, the dominant railroad in the Bakken, maintains its own hazardous materials emergency crews, totaling more than 220 personnel at 66 sites scattered across the country. The other major railroads take similar precautions and offer specialized training to local firefighters.

Yet corporate responsibility can only do so much, said Sietsema, who noted that the last significant derailment in his county came when a freight train hit a truck at a road crossing.

“Burlington Northern is pretty much Johnny on the spot,” he said. “But BN can only control so much.”

Like most rural communities, Wolf Point has an all-volunteer fire department. The nearest hazardous materials teams are stationed on the other side of the state, six to eight hours away. There’s no containment boom on hand if oil entered one of the Missouri River tributaries crossed by the rail line.

As for controlling an oil-fueled fire, Wolf Point’s fire department would use up its supply of specialized foam in a matter of minutes, said Chris Dschaak, Wolf Point’s mayor-elect and also secretary-treasurer of the local fire department.

Similar limitations exist for fire departments across the U.S., said Alan Finklestein, a fire marshal in Ohio who conducts hazardous materials training for government agencies and first responders.

He said the problem has been compounded by cutbacks in emergency personnel and training in recent years due to the ailing economy.

Greg Rhoads, a railroad emergency preparedness consultant and former CSX employee, said knowing what rail traffic is passing through a community and understanding the potential risks is crucial to being prepared.

Rhoads said he doesn’t think any community could handle a disaster like the one that unfolded in Quebec last July, but every fire department, even small ones, can do some things to prepare and develop a basic plan.

“If you have 10, 15, 20 railcars on fire, it would challenge Denver, Chicago or any major fire department,” Rhoads said.

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