Small-town fire departments ready themselves for oil-train disasters
Each day, some 600 oil-tanker cars pass through Crookston on their way west to North Dakota’s Oil Patch, and, even though their tanks are empty, Fire Chief Tim Froeber said he isn’t any less worried about them than if their tanks were full.
“The empty ones can be just as dangerous because they are full of fumes,” he said.
Recently, he said, he’s heard from federal officials and others that more train traffic is headed his way because of backups farther down the line. “That’s quite a concern with the tracks being so close to our college and going right through the middle of our town.”
For the Crookston Fire Department, like for other small-town fire departments with small budgets to match, it’s tough to be prepared for potentially catastrophic derailments, such as the ones that have been in the news.
“I’m not sure many fire departments are prepared to handle a major rail incident in the center of their community,” said Bruce Roed, a specialist with the Minnesota State Fire Marshal’s office.
The latest was a derailment last month involving a CSX Transportation train hauling North Dakota oil near downtown Lynchburg, Va. Witnesses described a giant fireball, but there were no report of injuries.
Around that time, Froeber got word of an offer from BNSF Railway, which owns most of the railroads in North Dakota and throughout much of Minnesota. The railroad said it would pay for training for local firefighters in the two states and elsewhere on how to deal with oil-train accidents.
BNSF had its own fiery derailment in December near Casselton, N.D. No one was injured in that accident either but only because the train wasn’t near town at the time.
Froeber said it makes a big difference for his department to have BNSF “paying for travel and everything.” Still, he said, it’s a challenge to get the on-call volunteer firefighters that make up the bulk of the department leave their full-time jobs to go train.
Another small-town fire department that plans to get the free training from BNSF is the one in Casselton. Fire Chief Tim McLean said he plans to send as many of his crew of volunteer firefighters as he can.
The day of the derailment near Casselton, he drove to within a half-mile of the fire and could go no closer, seeing no chance to fight the fire, he said earlier this month.
“You could feel the heat when that mushroom cloud went up in the air,” he said. “I was in my pickup running out to start up the command post and you could feel a little warmth through the glass.”
“It’s so dangerous,” Froeber said of the Casselton derailment. “You can’t get your water to it.”
If such a derailment had happened in or nearer a community it could do unthinkable damage, said Crookston Mayor Dave Genereux. “Obviously, with the greater rail traffic and of oil cars, the risk is increased. And as you know, the train goes right through the middle of our community. So we are at risk like many towns are.”
Disastrous derailments remain rare, according to George Bibel, an expert in rail and aircraft disasters at UND. He credits better tracks and better technology that detect problems early. “There are 90 percent fewer derailments since the 1970s.”
But he said he and other experts have been surprised by the high volatility of oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation.
More than other, “heavier” crudes, Bakken oil is more like gasoline in that it easily is vaporized, the fumes then easily ignited by heat and pressure, he said. Trains can start grass fires just leaning around a curve, much less at a collision or derailment, he said. “It’s still a steel wheel rolling on a steel rail, just like it was 150 years ago.”
“It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it can be catastrophic for a community,” Roed wrote of oil-train derailments in “Fire Chief” magazine this year. “And the odds of disaster grow along with the number of tank cars on the rails.”
Between 2008 and 2013, the number of rail cars carrying oil increased from 9,500 to 434,000, nearly doubling just from 2012 to 2013, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Need for training
Emergency-response officials are trying to be prepared for the danger of derailed oil trains.
“There is a huge interest in learning more, training more and looking at what additional items of equipment will be needed should this happen in a community where you live,” said Greg Wilz, director of the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.
His office is planning a special June training session for emergency responders focused on Bakken oil trains.
“The reality is every community really needs to assess what is their level of risk and what the potential hazard could be of something that could be, at some level, catastrophic,” Wilz said. “And ask themselves: If that happens in our community, what can we do, what should be done and should we ask for help above and beyond?”
BNSF, for its part, said it has long provided training and other kinds of support to emergency responders, including “specialized response equipment and our own haz-mat experts,” BNSF spokeswoman Amy Mcbeth said in an email to the Herald.
Now it’s offering to provide training to all North Dakota fire departments within 10 miles of its tracks, she said, as well as fire departments in Minnesota and some other states.
Exactly where, when and how often oil trains travel isn’t exactly public.
BNSF, like other railroad companies, can’t reveal that kind of information about hazardous material because of federal security regulations, Mcbeth said. She said the companies do inform emergency responders when hazardous material go through their communities but ask them to not tell others.
Grand Forks Fire Chief Peter O’Neill said he understands oil trains do not go through Grand Forks.
Mcbeth declined to confirm that.
But she said BNSF loads an average of eight unit trains, each with around 100 tanker cars, everyday, mostly in Texas and North Dakota. The trains then head for refineries all around the nation, she said.
A typical tanker car holds 30,100 gallons, or about 717 barrels, of oil.
About two thirds of the oil pumped from the ground in North Dakota is shipped by rail with the rest leaving the state by pipelines, said Justin Kringstad of the state Pipeline Authority.
With the Casselton derailment behind him, McLean said his advice for local emergency responders is: “Have a unified command system.”
In his case, he said, practice and training with area law enforcement and the Fargo Fire Department, which also houses the regional emergency response resources, made all the difference.
Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney, as usual, was incident commander and special equipment from the regional emergency-response center at the Fargo Fire Department and from BNSF was quickly available, he said.
At the state Department of Emergency Services, Wilz said McLean’s team is a good example of what can and can’t be done.
“At Casselton, I cannot tell you that if that happened in the middle of town that we would not have lost lives,” Wilz said. “But their training served them well. They recognized there was no way they could get in close enough to fight the fire. They called for backups, they kept their people away and followed their local protocols — they evacuated. I consider the job they did out there nearly textbook.”