Oil wreck responses leaving more questions than answers

By Robert and Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President,
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

We were returning from buying a used post hole digger in northeastern Iowa when we noticed a dark black cloud suddenly billowing up just northeast of us. It was the BNSF oil train wreck on the east bank of the Mississippi River a few miles south of Galena back on March 5.

The 103 oil tank car train was loaded with Bakken oil from North Dakota and headed toward an oil refinery in Pennsylvania. Twenty one tank cars derailed; seven split open and burst into flames. Ironically the cars involved had been upgraded to lessen the fire risks. Fortunately no one was hurt and none of the oil reached the Mississippi River or the adjacent nature preserve.

According to the Association of American railroads annual oil shipments by rail have increased from less than 10,000 in 2008 to nearly 500,000 in 2014. Most of the increase comes from the Bakken fields in North Dakota and Montana. Lacking pipelines, 70 percent of the oil is shipped by rail to distant oil refineries.

Bakken oil train derailments have often resulted in explosive fires raising safety concerns for populations living within a half mile of the tracks and the firefighters who respond to the fires. According to a Reuters news report the Galena firefighting volunteers were hosing down the smoldering wreck when it suddenly flared up forcing them to drop their hoses and scramble for safety. A county official indicated the crew was within 10 minutes of losing their lives

The Department of Transportation estimates that roughly 2,500 fire departments in the Midwest are adjacent to rail lines; officials do not know which of the departments are in need of training. In Galena with up to 50 oil trains passing through daily, firefighting volunteers had received some basic hazmat training but had not yet received the specialized training for first responders to oil derailments offered in Pueblo, Colorado, by major railroads.

The oil’s volatility can be reduced by heating it to drive off the explosive butane component before it is shipped. This would increase the cost of the oil and create a problem regarding what to do with the collected butane.

A second approach would require the oil trains to decrease their speed to 40 mph when travelling through heavily populated urban and surrounding suburban areas. But the Galena oil train was only traveling at 26 mph when a wheel on a car collapsed causing the derailment.

According to a report in the Billings Gazette, sensors could be installed on the lead locomotives to measure rail thickness and detect deformities which would alert the engineers to potential problems. They could be placed next to rail ties or under the tracks to detect track bed shifting or on cars to detect broken wheels such as in the Galena derailment.

New federal safety regulations called for the phasing out of old tank cars along with other measures by 2020. Seven environmental organizations filed a lawsuit claiming the rules will not protect the 25 million Americans living within a half mile of the tracks. The American Petroleum Institute filed a lawsuit challenging the timetable for replacing old oil cars and installing electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.

Legal challenges could alter or slow implementation of the rules. If more explosive wrecks occur involving the loss of lives and extensive property damage, stricter new rules could be implemented more quickly.

Of course ignored in the on-going safety debates is the need to dramatically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

Reach the Vogls at sonia@essex1.com.

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