Galena marks latest in series of explosive railway accidents

By Shane Nicholson
Managing Editor

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train carrying crude oil derailed near the confluence of the Galena River and the Mississippi last Thursday afternoon near the ferry landing south of Galena.

BNSF personnel and the Grant County Sheriff’s Office hazmat team were two of the first responders to the spill. The Dubuque Fire Department sent its foam truck to the scene to battle the flames.

Other responders included personnel and equipment from Freeport, Cedarville, Davis, German Valley and Lena.

The train had 103 cars filled with crude oil and two “buffer cars” filled with sand.

In total, seventeen cars derailed with five of the crude-oil cars catching fire. Each car was carrying approximately 30,000 gallons of crude oil from the Bakken formation of North Dakota.

The incident resulted in a massive black smoke plume and flames more than 300-feet high visible on the horizon for miles.

The Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board was notified by BNSF, a Warren Buffett Berkshire Hathaway Inc company.

Photo courtesy Dubuque Scanner News.
Photo courtesy Dubuque Scanner News.

Safer cars

BNSF reported that the Galena incident happened despite the use of its newer model CPC 1232 rail cars. The supposedly safer car is meant to prevent the massive explosions witnessed outside Galena in the event of a derailment.

The CPC 1232 was brought in to replace the older DOT-111 rail car after numerous faults were recognized by regulators and operations over the years.

However, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) has recommended that the CPC 1232 models be given improved braking systems and thicker hulls.

February’s Bakken oil train derailment in West Virginia also involved the supposedly safer CPC 1232 model rail cars. Another train which derailed in northern Ontario the same week as the West Virginia incident featured the newer cars, although over a week later seven of the 29 cars that had derailed remained on fire.

Rail vs pipeline safety

A Manhattan Institute study released in 2013 highlighted the dangers of rail transport versus other methods such as over-the-road and pipelines.

The study, compiling data from 2005-2009, showed that rail transport of crude oil had a far higher incident rate than oil transported via pipelines, despite more road and rail incidents going unreported.

Rail transport, with 2.08 incidents per billion ton miles, was outpaced nearly 10-to-1 by oil transported via roadways.

But it nearly quadrupled the rate of incidents related to pipelines, which had just 0.58 incidents per billion ton miles.

Both rail and pipeline transportation accounted for an average of 2.4 fatalities per year, but again railway transport saw fatalities at a much higher rate of occurrence as compared to the amount of oil transported.

Per billion ton miles, railway incidents saw 0.1 fatalities whilst pipelines witnessed 0.004 deaths. Transport by roadway again proved far more dangerous than the other two methods, accounting for 0.293 deaths per billion ton miles.

Accident increases

According to the Associated Press, railroads saw 493,126 tank cars transporting oil in 2014, up from 407,761 in 2013.

In 2008, prior to the boom set off by the opening of well throughout North Dakota, Montana and Canada, railroads saw only 9,500 cars transport crude oil in the U.S.

Accidents have been blamed on excessive speed and operator error, though industry groups and regulators have recently raised flags over weather-related concerns.

Cold weather can cause rails and train car wheels to contract causing the steel to become more brittle.

Investigators of the Feb. 14 Canadian derailment have reportedly recovered a broken wheel and a section of broken rail that they have termed “of interest” in the cause of the crash.

“You get real cold weather like this and a rail can just snap,” Ed Dobranetski, a former National Transportation Safety Board rail accidents investigator, told the AP.

“A wheel will shatter like a piece of glass.”

Off-track safety

Recent NPR reports and other environmental experts have been focusing on the dangers of crude oil transportation through heavily-populated areas, with more and more oil coming from the Dakotas and Canada by rail. This oil is very volatile and gaseous in its pre-refinery condition.

After a CSX train carrying over 3 million gallons of crude oil derailed in West Virginia last month, the company began rerouting its oil trains through other heavily populated areas.

Train lobbyists insist that revealing the details of the lines which carry this crude oil would leave them open to terrorist attacks.

Despite this, USDOT went ahead and implemented an emergency rule last year forcing rail companies to inform local response teams when a train carrying more than a million gallons of crude oil was set to pass through their area.

However, the rule does not force train companies to alert residents in the area, even if the lines to be used are not typical paths for crude oil transport.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration said in 2014 that crude oil like that which was spilled in Galena is more flammable than other types and more dangerous to transport over land.

A pipeline-regulator spokeswoman told Bloomberg news that “there is sufficient cause for concern” in regards to the proper labeling of train cars carrying crude oil.

A Wall Street Journal Report showed that the Bakken-sourced crude oil is the most explosive of its type as compared to 86 other locations around the world where similar fracking and horizontal drilling techniques are used to extract crude oil.

Environmental impacts

The response in Galena once the fires were contained focused on the potential long term impact to the surrounding environment.

The Galena spill occurred in an isolated rural area right next to the waterway, and the conditions of the train tracks along the Mississippi have been a concern for some time with various environmental groups, such as the Quad-Cities Waterkeepers.

As spring moves in the snow melt is driving up the level of area rivers. As a result, both the Environmental Protection Agency and BNSF are working to erect barriers around the crash site to prevent floodwaters from inundated the oil-soaked ground.

On June 19, 2009, 12 tank cars of the Chicago, Central & Pacific Railroad (CCP) carrying ethanol caught fire and burned at the Mulford Road crossing in Rockford. Heavy rains destabilized a railroad crossing next to the Kishwaukee River, causing the derailment, fire and ethanol spill.

The Kishwaukee is one only four “Class A” rivers in Illinois and a tributary to the Rock River, now a National Water Trail. The ethanol, recent farm fertilization, and local sewer problems, combined in a toxic mass flowing down the Rock River and resulted in the largest fish kill in the history of Illinois.

The dead fish were so deep at the Quad Cities dams you could walk across the river on them, according to residents at the confluence of the Rock River and the Mississippi.

shane.nicholson@rockrivertimes.com | @ofvoid

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