MISSOULA – With scrutiny growing about the safety of moving crude oil by rail, Western Montana residents wonder how increased shipments will be kept safe along sensitive places like the border of Glacier National Park.
The Canadian government on Wednesday ordered the removal of 5,000 oil tank cars believed unsafe for duty, along with a demand to upgrade or remove another 65,000 similar tankers. Transport Canada also imposed speed limits of 50 mph or less in developed areas and near drinking water supplies.
The U.S. government responded Thursday, stating it planned to roll out tougher proposed standards this week, with possible rules adopted this summer. But for some residents along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, more work is needed.
“Parts of the river are feet away from the tracks,” said Hilary Hutcheson, a Columbia Falls resident, fishing guide and outdoor media business owner. “I enjoy being on the tracks. There’s lots of history and symbolism there. It represents progress and westward movement and the amazing things Americans can do. But when even one of those cars takes a tumble and breaks open, it’s game over.”
These same oil trains move with full loads westbound through North Idaho and Eastern Washington, including downtown Spokane. Empty tankers are moving eastward. They are seen moving along the tracks frequently.
The railroad along U.S. Highway 2 has a checkered history for derailments, including several famous grain car spills in the 1980s that attracted grizzly bears out of Glacier Park. Last winter, two trains derailed on either side of the Continental Divide, and two avalanches briefly blocked the tracks. No oil or other hazardous material was spilled in any of those incidents. But tank cars have toppled into Whitefish Lake, requiring extensive cleanup efforts.
Flathead County Disaster and Emergency Services deputy director Cindy Mullaney said forest fires remain the No. 1 training concern in the area for local responders. Flooding is No. 2.
“But hazardous materials has moved up the list as a result of things like Bakken oil changes,” Mullaney told the Missoulian. “It’s not No. 3, but it’s high on the list. And it’s definitely moved up in our concern for what could happen.”
Mullaney said Whitefish residents have expressed particular concern about the explosive nature of Bakken crude oil from fields of western North Dakota and Eastern Montana, which federal studies say can be unusually flammable. The concerns grew sharper after a crude oil train derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec, last July, killing 47 people.
A similar train exploded near Casselton, N.D., in December, triggering the evacuation of the 2,300-person town. That happened after a BNSF grain train derailed and another oil train hit the toppled cars. About 20 tanker cars caught fire.
BNSF released a call for 5,000 next-generation tank cars several weeks ago to stay ahead of industry safety standards, according to company spokesman Matt Jones. He said the railroad company doesn’t own any tank cars other than the ones it uses to transport diesel fuel for its own locomotives.
But it ships an average of nine crude oil trains a day on its rails. At least one of those heads west along either Highway 2 or Interstate 90 daily.
That figure could change soon. Rail industry analyst PLG Consulting has forecast a 12 percent to 15 percent compound annual growth rate for Bakken crude rail delivery volume, and a 40 percent to 50 percent growth rate for western Canadian crude-by-rail volume through 2017.
Jones said he had not seen specific trend numbers for oil coming out of the Bakken. But he said BNSF is investing “record amounts of capital to expand capacity and improve service to accommodate the growth that is occurring on our network.”
According to figures from the Association of American Railroads, there are 335,000 tank cars in active use. Of those, 92,000 are non-pressurized DOT-111 cars used for carrying flammable liquids like crude oil and ethanol. About 14,000 of those are built to the latest industry safety standards, although they may still require upgrades. The remaining 78,000 “will require retrofitting or phase-out based on AAR’s proposal,” the industry group stated.
AAR reported that 2.47 million carloads of hazardous materials moved on North American railroads in 2012. Of that 99.998 percent of the carloads arrived at their destination “without a release caused by an accident.”