No Community is Prepared for Major Oil-By-Rail Accident, Senate Hearing Told

DeSmog Blog | April 27, 2014 | Post by Justin Milkulka

Just as you aren’t supposed to try to put out an oil fire in your kitchen with water, you aren’t supposed to try to put out a crude oil fire with water either. But in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that is all firefighters had for the first two days of battling the catastrophic oil-by-rail fire last July.

Image credit: Firefighter battling train accident, via Shutterstock.

The fire burned until 8,000 gallons of firefighting foam finally arrived from Toronto, an eight-hour drive away. Forty-seven people were killed in the accident.

This lack of foam not only makes the job of first responders impossible when fighting these crude oil fires — it also greatly increases the environmental damage. While the Lac-Megantic firefighters were using water, they were helping the oil flow into the nearby lake and river. One and a half million gallons of oil were spilled. 

At a recent Senate Appropriations hearing on oil-by-rail safety, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Deborah Hersman was very clear about the state of preparedness in the United States when it comes to addressing accidents like the one in Lac-Megantic.

No community is prepared for a worst-case event,” Hersman said.

One of the main reasons no community is prepared for a worst-case oil-by-rail event is the loophole that exempts oil companies from needing comprehensive spill response plans in place. The NTSB has recommended this be changed, but regulators at the Department of Transportation aren’t moving to do so.

Communities are especially vulnerable to oil-by-rail accidents because they have not been trained to fight crude oil fires and, even if they had been, they don’t have the necessary foam. 

Jim Smith, assistant chief of operations for the St. Paul Fire Department, in Minnesota, made this clear when speaking to the Star Tribune, stating: “There isn’t a fire department that has that much foam right now.”

And yet everyone agrees foam is required. 

However, the reality is that the foam isn’t available and the training hasn’t happened. In New York, where much of the Bakken Crude now passes through on trains, even fire departments in larger cities, such as Syracuse, have not been trained and can’t get information from the railroads, according to a recent article in the Syracuse New Times.

The Syracuse deputy fire chief responsible for hazardous materials says that the county is still trying to get information from the railroads and has done no training specific to the derailment of a shale oil train. The county official responsible for emergency management has ignored repeated requests for information about the shipments or about plans for dealing with accidents.

These trains have been passing through Syracuse since 2012. 

DeSmogBlog contacted the New York State Division of Homeland Security &Emergency Services and requested information about the amounts and locations of firefighting foam in the state. Despite promises to deliver this information, it was not provided. 

In Maine, a state that had firefighters respond to the Lac-Megantic incident, the Portland Press Herald reports the situation is much the same.

Waterville Fire Chief David LaFountain asked Pan Am Railways last year for specialized training in dealing with volatile Bakken crude oil, but he never heard back from the railroad.

Many of the Maine communities located on the rail lines are up to four hours away from South Portland, which is one location in the state with a large amount of foam and personnel trained to use it.

The reality is that communities across the country do not have the resources or the training to deal with an oil-by-rail accident. And thanks to loopholes and the lack of new regulation to address the now known dangers of Bakken crude and the DOT-111 tank cars, the railroads and oil companies are doing little to address the issue.

Despite the obvious and known dangers, Jack Koraleski, CEO of railroad company Union Pacific, told the Associated Press, “It's not something to be afraid of.”

In her testimony to Congress on April 9th, Hersman made it clear what needs to occur and who is responsible.

We have got to support our emergency responders in local communities. They can’t possibly be prepared for one of these worst-case discharges. We have to have a support structure in place for them and that is the obligation of the shippers and the transporters to make sure that that happens. They are the best equipped to do that and they can do that by contracting with resources all along the route so that there is a rapid response.  The communities that are along the rights-of-way deserve it.  Pipelines and the marine industry have done this for years, decades in fact, they know how to do it and it can be done.”

Of course, that would require federal regulators to do something more than ask the industry to volunteer to make changes — which is all they have done so far. 

There have been no changes made to improve safety beyond the industry’s promised voluntary ones  — which they have already failed to live up to. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) said in a statement earlier this month.

Just last month before the Commerce Committee, the crude oil industry assured us they were focused on safety and willing to work on this issue.  Since then, I’ve seen nothing to convince me this was more than just lip service.”

The Bakken crude has been shown to be explosive. The Department of Transportation has requested more information on the crude from the oil companies but they have not provided it.  The main tank cars used to ship the Bakken crude are known to be unsafe and yet are likely to be in use for years.  Communities across the country are at risk due to a lack of training and fire fighting foam. 

And still the industry has plans for massive expansion of the use of rail for shipping oil. A new train-loading terminal opened last week in Wyoming with the capacity to load another 80,000 barrels a day of oil onto rail cars. As it stands, any efforts by the oil and rail companies to insure the safety of the communities these trains pass through will be totally voluntary.

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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.