Tar Sands by Rail Disasters: The Latest Wave in the Bomb Train Assault

DeSmogBlog | March 9, 2015 | Post by Justin Mikulka

With the first crash and explosion of a unit train of tar sands oil in Canada in February, we learned that the conventional wisdom among people covering the oil-by-rail industry regarding the flammability of tar sands oil has been dead wrong. A second derailment and explosion on March 7th involved synbit, which is a form of bitumen diluted with synthetic crude oil.

Image Credit: Transportation Safety Board of Canada

While there are many examples of this mischaracterization of the dangers of moving tar sands by rail that can be found in the press, here at DeSmogBlog we didn’t have to look far. In an article last year about how to make Bakken crude less dangerous we wrote that the government had plans to allow tar sands oil to be transported in the unsafeDOT-111 rail tank cars “because it is not explosive.”

While raw bitumen from the Alberta tar sands is not volatile or highly flammable, when it is diluted with natural gas condensate to form a mixture known as dilbit, which is typically done to make it easier to transport, it appears that it can be as dangerous as the Bakken crude that has now been proven to be highly flammable and explosive in multiple train derailments.

An article in Railway Age pointing out the implications of the tar-sands-by-rail accident had the ominous title “Why bitumen isn’t necessarily safer than Bakken” and concluded with the statement that “Should TSB [Transportation Safety Board] conclude that dilbit has a volatility similar to Bakken crude, as the Alberta research suggests, the hazmat classification of crude oil could be in question.”

Railway Age was referring to a 2014 study done by Alberta Innovates titled “Properties of Dilbit and Conventional Crude Oils” that reached the conclusion that “[T]he flash point is determined by the lowest-boil-point components (volatiles). Consequently, the flash point of the dilbit is governed by the 20%-30% volume diluent component …”

The reason light fracked oils like those from the Bakken and Eagle Ford are so explosive is that the crude comes out of the ground with many of the components of condensate (e.g. propane, ethane, pentane, hexane) as part of the crude mixture.

Which helps explain why dilbit is so flammable and potentially explosive because these very same components are intentionally added to the bitumen to create dilbit. And as the Alberta Innovates study noted, that makes the flash point of dilbit the same as the diluent/condensate. 

How flammable is condensate? According to a ConocoPhillips Material Safety Data Sheet for condensate it is “Extremely Flammable.” And while that is for pure condensate, MSDS information for dilbit has been warning of the flammability of that mixture for years.

On the U.S. State Department website, documents about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline include information on dilbit that classifies it in the most flammable category of Packing Group I. The documents are dated August 2011.  

Cenovus, one of the first companies to ship tar sands oil by rail, clearly identifies dilbit as being “Highly flammable liquid and vapour” in the MSDSinformation on its website for its tar sands product line. And the MSDSclassifies the oil as UN1267, Class 3 Packing Group II. This is the same classification as most of the oil that was involved in the Lac Megantic rail disaster.

MSDS information for a version of synbit produced by ConocoPhillips describes it as “highly flammable” and classifies it as Class 3, Packing Group II, once again the same classification as most of the oil that was involved in the Lac Megantic disaster.

So while the Railway Age article states, “the Hazmat classification of crude oil could be in question,” this isn’t really the case. The industry has been classifying dilbit and synbit as “a highly flammable liquid and vapour” and has put it in the same category as the Bakken oil involved in several accidents and explosions.

The industry appears to be classifying these products properly. However, just like with the Bakken crude, the dilbit and synbit is being loaded into tank cars that are not designed to carry a highly flammable liquid and vapour. And then those cars are lined up in unit trains of over 100 cars and sent across North America through many major population centers with potentially catastrophic results.      

In April of 2013, The Nation ran an article with the title “How Little We Know About Heavy Tar Sands Oil.”

In the article they quote an exchange between Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and then Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) chief Cynthia Quarterman from 2011 where Waxman questions Quarterman about the properties of diluted bitumen.

REPWAXMAN: Were your regulations developed with the properties of diluted bitumen in mind?

MSQUARTERMAN: I don't believe it was a part of the equation, no.

REPWAXMAN: Have you received [sic] your regulations to assess whether they adequately address any risks specific to diluted bitumen?

MSQUARTERMAN: We have not done so.

Three years after that exchange, PHMSA commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to do a study on the “Effects of Diluted Bitumen on the Environment.

Today and tomorrow, on March 9th and 10th, the study group will hold a public meeting in Washington, D.C. The agenda for the meeting includes nothing about transporting dilbit by rail or about the flammable characteristics of dilbit.

In an email response to a question from DeSmogBlog about whether the study would be reviewing the dilbit train crash in February, the respondee noted that the study would “focus their report” on pipelines.

The study committee is still in the early phases of their work. As was mentioned at the first public meeting in December, the committee’s primary sponsor is the Office of Pipeline Safety within PHMSA and will focus their report on that mode of transportation. That said, the mode of transportation is only part of what needs to be considered when looking at spill response planning, preparedness, and cleanup.  The committee is aware of the recent incidents involving rail transportation and will use any and all available data and information to address its task.

Despite not being the focus of the study, due to the dilbit train accident that occurred in Canada in February, and the second accident that occurred two days before the scheduled meeting, dilbit-by-rail is sure to be a topic of discussion among attendees and the press.

With reports of one million liters of dilbit being spilled in the first accident and photos of railcars in a river as a result of the second accident, these are real world examples of dilbit in the environment.         

The similarities between how the Bakken oil-by-rail story has unfolded to the currently developing dilbit by rail story are eerie. Both came out of nowhere and established themselves well before regulators did anything to address these large new industries.  

While the dilbit-by-rail volumes are not yet as large as those for Bakken oil, the steep ramp-up in volumes has been similar. And both required fiery accidents to begin to get any attention about the characteristics of the products being transported.

In a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing in 2014, then chair Deborah Hersman asked a question to the assembled experts from the rail and oil industries about how those industries had ended up creating a business shipping highly explosive crude oil in cars designed for materials like corn syrup and corn oil.

How did it get missed for the last ten years?”  Hersman asked.

She continued:

How do we move to an environment where commodities are classified in the right containers from the get go and not just put in until we figure out that there’s a problem. Is there a process for that?”

Based on the continuing explosions of Bakken crude oil trains and the delayed regulations to deal with this threat, there clearly isn’t a process.

And with the first dilbit train crash resulting in the same fire and spills that are the signature of Bakken oil train crashes, followed by the first synbit train crash doing the same, it is even more clear that there is no process for deciding what is safe, only what is profitable.


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Tar Sands by Rail Disasters: The Latest Wave in the Bomb Train Assault
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.