Derailed: Railroad delays first responders on riverside oil spill

KDVR FOX31 Denver  |  September 22, 2014  |  by Chris Halsne

DENVER — FOX31 Denver has confirmed a May 9 crude oil train car derailment near LaSalle, Colorado polluted area groundwater with toxic levels of benzene.

Environmental Protection Agency records from July show benzene measurements as high as 144 parts per billion near the crash site. Five parts per billion is considered the safe limit.

Federal accident records also show six Union Pacific tankers ripped apart from the train and flipped into a ditch due to a “track misalignment caused by a soft roadbed.” One of the tankers cracked and spilled approximately7,000 gallons of Niobrara crude, according to the EPA.

FOX31 Denver’s investigative team also confirmed the oil car accident location, only about 75 yards from the South Platte River, is in the same spot as another Union Pacific derailment four years ago.

Reports show four rail cars full of wheat/grain derailed in October 2010. The cause of that accident was very similar: “roadbed settled or soft” and “other rail and joint bar defects.”

“They did have a derailment at the exact same point. I mean within feet!” witness Glenn Werning, a nearby farmer and local water supervisor, told FOX31 Denver investigative reporter Chris Halsne.

Werning wonders if Union Pacific was negligent in repairing the area after the first crash telling Halsne, “It would have been devastating if it had gotten into the water and flowed down. It would have been, whew! The oil spill would have been a mess to clean up because it would have been on both sides of the river for miles.”

Union Pacific declined FOX31 Denver’s repeated requests for an on-camera interview, but a spokesperson, Mark Davis, sent a statement which says in part:

“The line where the derailment occurred is visually inspected one time per week. The maximum speed limit on the line is 20 mph.  Prior to the derailment the track was visually inspected on April 26, April 28, May 1 and May 5 with no exceptions taken. Our track team visually inspects about 15,500 miles of track daily on our 32,000 mile network in 23 states – this translates into 5.7 million miles annually of visional track inspections.”

There is currently no way to double-check the accuracy or completeness of Union Pacific’s statement because private railroads are allowed to conduct their own safety inspections and keep such records private.

Federal law only allows the Federal Railroad Administration to audit railroad inspections to make sure “the owner of the track” is conducting them appropriately.

However, at least in Colorado, that has not been done for at least three years.

FOX31 Denver’s investigative team sent Freedom of Information Act requests asking how often the FRA audited private railroad safety inspections in Colorado. The answer: From January 1, 2012 to March, 2014 is zero.

San Francisco-based Environmental Attorney and Sierra Club activist, Devorah Ancel, says the fact that private railroads conduct their own rail line and rail car safety inspections with very little federal oversight is a growing problem.

Ancel told FOX31 Denver, “The rail industry wants to get as much of this crude to market as quickly as possible. The more the federal government cracks down on safety standards, inspections, on audits, the more they are going to push back because it`s going to affect their bottom line.”

Ancel is part of a group also pressing the Department of Transportation for improvements in the design of hazardous liquid-carrying rail cars. Currently most crude oil travels across tracks in older-model containers called DOT 111’s.

According to federal authorities, the Union Pacific oil tanker which rolled, cracked and then spewed thousands of gallons of crude onto the ground in May’s accident is considered a DOT 111 design.

“This is extremely volatile crude. The tank cars have thin shells. They have thin head shields that are known to puncture during derailment. They have valves that sheer off and puncture during derailment,” Ancel says.

As if multiple derailments in the same place, unverified safety inspections, and outdated oil tanker containers were not enough of a reason for public concern, FOX31 Denver also discovered that Union Pacific officials are being accused of delaying telling local emergency responders about the latest oil car derailment.

According to Weld County Emergency Manager Roy Rudisill, Union Pacific first rallied its own crews to the scene before putting local firefighters in the loop.

Halsne asked, “Were they a little late to let you know?” Rudisill answered, “In my opinion, yes!”

We checked. According to a federal report, the accident happened at around 8 a.m. on May 9.

FOX31 Denver pulled call logs surrounding the accident and found Union Pacific first notified the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management at 9:10 am.

Radio traffic shows Weld County fire crews and emergency managers were still scrambling another hour later, trying to figure out exactly where the accident had occurred and whether oil was leaking into the South Platte River.

Rudisill told FOX31 Denver, “A quicker phone call, quicker communication, faster communication to local jurisdiction would have been prudent in my opinion. Now we’ve had two incidents out there. What can we do to make sure the proper actions are taking place so we don’t have another one?”

Werning hates to lay blame entirely on Union Pacific admitting “accidents do happen,” but he`s closely watching their latest track repair efforts, never again wanting to count on “pure luck” as a disaster prevention plan.

“Had they perhaps done a better repair (after the first derailment), they wouldn`t have dropped those cars,” Werning said.

The Environmental Protection Agency said it continues to monitor the groundwater contamination issue. Monitoring wells have been installed in the area surrounding the oil spill. Benzene is a common chemical in oil and gasoline and it does naturally dissipate over time.

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.