Oil trains put local emergency officials on alert
“Fire service agencies across Washington State report a lack of available fire suppressant foam trucks and trailers and support equipment such as high capacity/volume pump capability, air monitoring equipment (carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and benzene), oil spill response equipment and training to respond safely and effectively in the event of a crude oil derailment and fire.”
“There is a need to provide first responders with additional planning, training and response resources to respond to a train derailment with an associated spill, fire/explosion and toxic fume emissions. The amount of crude oil being transported exceeds emergency response capabilities.”
— 2014 Marine and Rail Oil Transportation Study conducted by the state Department of Ecology
By Dee Riggs
WENATCHEE — On any given day, one or two oil trains rumble through Wenatchee and communities to the west and east, including Quincy, Ephrata, Leavenworth and Cashmere.
The eastbound trains have disgorged most of their contents at refineries on the west side of the Cascades.
But they are not empty.
“There will be a certain amount of oil left in the train car because not all of it will drain out,” said Jason Lewis, transportation policy adviser for the state Utilities and Transportation Commission. “If there was a derailment, we would still be looking at potential combustion or a fire.”
Local fire officials say they may not have the firefighting capabilities to handle an explosion, especially if it involves multiple rail cars.
“We are a small community and we would need resources coming from a large distance away,” said Mike Burnett, chief of Chelan County Fire District No. 1. “Any major incident, from wildfires to oil train accidents can exceed our immediate capabilities.”
Sgt. Kent Sisson, assistant emergency management director for Chelan County, said he wants specific answers from BNSF Railway officials, whose rails transport the oil cars.
“What are the dangers of a quote-unquote empty container?” he asked. “Would we expect an explosion? Is there no chance of an explosion? How much remnant fuel is left inside? Are they vented or not vented. And we would need to know how significant an explosion there might be and what our response would look like.
“I don’t know the answers to that yet.”
In Quincy, Fire District No. 3 Chief Don Fortier, said he has heard that the residual cars may hold 2,500 to 3,000 gallons of oil.
“That’s a significant amount of oil, and I’m worried about all the vapors,” he said. “They are probably more explosive being partially empty because of the gases.”
Ephrata Fire Chief Jeremy Burns said he has heard each car could hold 500 gallons of oil. “Our biggest concern is derailment,” he said. “There may not be a large spill but there could still be a large fire.”
He said he wishes BNSF would develop an alert system so local emergency responders would know when an oil train was coming through the area.
North Central Washington emergency responders are not alone in their worries about oil trains.
Fire and emergency officials in the Tri-Cities and other Washington state cities along the oil train routes have been meeting with state and federal legislators to explore the dangers and propose legislation that would, among other things, limit the volatility of crude oil, and require the use of thicker and more crash-resistant tank cars on oil trains. Rail cars with enhanced safety features may be on the rails in the next year.
Many of the oil trains originate in the oil fields of North Dakota and carry what is known as Bakken crude oil. Oil production from that area has skyrocketed since 2006. According to a 2014 report by the state Department of Ecology, Bakken crude is “highly flammable and easily ignited at normal temperatures by heat, static discharges, sparks or flames. … Bakken crude can have elevated levels of benzene, a known carcinogen that could impact responder and public safety if released into the environment. Accordingly, extreme caution needs to be exercised during the initial stages of response.”
Weekly, according to the study, 19 unit trains with Bakken oil pass through Washington state. They travel, loaded, through Spokane, the Tri-Cities, Vancouver, and go either south to refineries in Oregon and California or to refineries in Western Washington. The trains travel empty over Stevens and Stampede passes.
“Future crude-by-rail traffic may increase to three times this volume by 2020, and six times this volume, or 17 billion gallons, by 2035,” according to the study.
The issue of the safety of Bakken crude oil transport came to light with a July 6, 2013, accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, according to the DOE study. A crude-by-rail train derailed near a town center, causing an explosion that killed 47 people. The study also notes 10 other crude oil train derailments in North America in 2013 and 2014. Only the Lac-Mégantic incident involved human casualties. Seven of the incidents involved fires and or explosions.
No fire erupted on July 24, 2014, when a train laden with Bakken crude oil derailed near the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle. While there was no release of oil, local and state authorities were concerned because the incident happened in a densely-populated area and near waterways, according to the DOE study.
Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF, said trains carrying residual Bakken crude oil have been moving through Chelan and Grant counties for two and a half years.
The trains don’t travel loaded over Stevens Pass because of costs involved with the steep grade, Melonas said. There are about 110 tank cars per train. Each can carry about 700 barrels, or 30,000 gallons, of crude oil. Melonas said BNSF “works hard to ensure communities and the environment are protected.” He said BNSF is making track upgrades and “we keep a close eye on all of our trains, whether they are full or empty.”
Key to fighting an oil-car fire would be Class B foam, which is used to fight fires involving liquids and gases. Local fire engines carry only a small amount of the foam. Fire Chief Burnett noted that one of his engines holds 20 gallons of the foam. “It would be like a squirt bottle trying to put out a structure fire,” he said. “The amount of foam that extinguishes a Class B fire is way beyond our capabilities here, and that of most all agencies.”
In the event of an oil train fire, he said, local firefighters would call for help from engines at Pangborn Memorial Airport. Engines there are equipped to fight aircraft fires, which would likely involve fuel.
Ron Russ, Pangborn operations manager, said an engine at the airport carries 200 gallons of foam concentrate, which is capable of dispensing 6,000 gallons of foam solution. There is also a 200-gallon supply of foam concentrate in storage. Other engines at the airport carry 100 gallons of premixed foam solution.
“We would be happy to help if we can,” Russ said, noting the mutual aid agreement with local fire agencies. “The question is, would we have the capacity to deal with such a fire as could happen with an oil train?”
Burnett said the response to an oil train fire would involve, not only calling in a Pangborn rig, but clearing people from the area, separating uninvolved train cars and keeping oil from getting into waterways.
“I think that all of us in emergency service are recognizing this as a new hazard that we have to deal with,” Burnett said, “and we’re in the process of educating ourselves and becoming more familiar with what our exposure actually is.”
Sisson, the county emergency official, noted that BNSF officials gave a presentation a year or two ago to local emergency officials, but concerns at that time were not as heightened as now.
“That was before all these accidents across the country,” he said.
— By Dee Riggs, email@example.com