A string of train accidents involving crude oil shipments in the U.S. and Canada is causing uneasiness in Spokane and other communities bisected by railways. And the safety of rail cars and hazardous cargo is under intensifying scrutiny.
With the number of oil trains from the upper Great Plains expected to increase through the Spokane area, the risk of spills and potentially deadly fires is a growing concern, City Council President Ben Stuckart said.
“These are almost moving bombs,” Stuckart said. “They’re carrying highly explosive material.”
Spokane is a pinch point for rail traffic through the region. The tracks for BNSF Railway Co., a major oil hauler, cross the Spokane River, pass near schools and cut through downtown beside retail centers, office towers, hospitals and Interstate 90.
At least one fully loaded oil train – which can stretch as long as 130 cars – snakes through Spokane each day. But with West Side refineries and terminals ramping up to receive more of the black bounty, these shipments could become far more frequent.
Federal officials recently warned that oil from the booming Bakken shale field in North Dakota and Montana is more flammable than previously known, raising the anxiety level.
Stuckart wants city leaders to support tougher federal safety standards for moving crude oil by rail, including the use of new tank cars that can better survive derailments and lower train speeds in metro areas.
In the city’s downtown core, freight train speeds drop to as low as 10 to 25 mph, according to BNSF Railway Co.
Local residents have been focused on harmful dust blowing off coal trains from Wyoming and Montana, but oil by rail is a greater worry, Stuckart said. “I find that this has now become a bigger issue if we look at the potential harm in a derailment accident,” he said.
As many as 22 full and empty oil trains a day could soon traverse Northwest railways, according to a recent market analysis by Sightline Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Seattle. That’s based on 100-car trains with each car holding 700 barrels of crude.
Major spills and fires are rare on North American rail lines, and the industry says it’s pumping billions of dollars into upgrades and safety improvements.
“We invest in training, technology, track improvements, equipment – all of this leads to a safe railroad,” said Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman in Seattle. “One incident is too many, and we learn from all of these that occurred. … Our goal is not to have any incidents.”
Four oil-related rail accidents since last summer – two in the past three weeks – have renewed calls for safety improvements. Railroad and oil industry executives said Thursday they’d take steps to reduce accidents, including analyzing the risks of oil trains and maybe slowing down the trains in populated areas.
On Dec. 30, a BNSF train carrying crude oil crashed into a derailed train in North Dakota, triggering explosions and a fire that prompted about 1,400 residents to flee a nearby town. Eight days later, a train loaded with crude oil and propane derailed in Canada’s New Brunswick province, leading to another evacuation.
What truly rattled rail towns across the continent was the crash and horrific explosion last July that killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings in the center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
“I don’t think it’s being hyperbolic or fear-mongering to say we should be really worried about that,” said Eric de Place, policy director at Sightline. “I think the potential loss of life is so staggering that we need to be extremely concerned.”
A pipeline on rails
America’s oil rush has fueled the spike in crude moving by rail. Drilling sites dotting the vast Bakken formation sprang up faster than new pipelines could keep pace in recent years, and a million barrels a day is being pulled from the ground there. The industry turned to railroads to move oil to coastal refineries and port terminals.
In 2010, trains hauled just 6 percent of the production in the Williston Basin. By mid-2013, railroads moved 68 percent of the oil.
BNSF said it hauls more than 600,000 barrels of crude a day across its network. That includes, on average, one train a day through Spokane.
That number easily could rise as refineries and transfer terminals in Puget Sound and along the lower Columbia prepare to take more Bakken crude. Three Washington refineries bring it in now and two more want to start. Also, a terminal in Clatskanie, Ore., receives and ships the oil, and five more terminals in Washington hope to follow suit.
If approved by state regulators, the largest rail-oil terminal in the Northwest could open later this year at the Port of Vancouver. Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. envision a complex that could handle as much as 360,000 barrels of oil a day, pulling crude off trains and loading it onto ships for delivery to U.S. refineries.
As the leading crude oil rail carrier in the Northwest, BNSF anticipates it would haul oil to the new Vancouver terminal.
About 30,000 people submitted comments on the Vancouver project. Many urged the state to require an analysis of potential impacts along the route, including the possibility of a derailment and explosion in a densely populated area such as Spokane and oil spills along the Columbia River.
BNSF officials want a more limited scope for the Tesoro-Savage project analysis. The rail lines that will serve the project already exist, and the potential risks from being near an active rail line are already present and known, wrote Skip Kalb, BNSF’s director of strategic development.
But Stuckart believes Spokane has much at stake from oil by rail, including the lives of thousands who live, work and attend school near rail lines, and the protection of drinking water and air quality in the area. He wants the City Council to have a voice in state approval of new refineries and terminals and also push for stronger federal rail safety regulations.
“I’m not anti-train,” Stuckart said, “but these are huge public safety issues and they have to be addressed.”
He plans to bring a resolution before the City Council next week to highlight his concerns, including a request to include Spokane in all environmental reviews of projects that increase oil trains through town.
Planning for disaster
An oil train accident here could put tens of thousands of people in harm’s way, trigger a large-scale evacuation and spread toxic smoke and black soot through neighborhoods.
Such a calamity is factored into emergency plans for Spokane County and its cities. “All we can try to do is be best prepared to handle it when it does occur,” Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams said.
Hazmat teams based in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene and at Fairchild Air Force Base stand at the ready, and officials can summon help from other fire departments and tap federal resources in a major emergency. In addition, BNSF has held training sessions for first responders.
Trains must carry an inventory of cargo, and each car must be labeled with its contents. That accounting helps first responders know what they’re dealing with at an accident scene.
Still, there is little firefighters can do to extinguish large oil blazes, which can burn for days and force people to flee thick plumes of noxious smoke.
“If it’s more safe to let it burn, you may just let it burn,” Williams said.
He also said local hazmat teams may need to adjust their response plans in reaction to the revelations about the volatility of Bakken crude.
“Do the perimeters need to be larger?” Williams said. “Is there a certain type of foam that may be more effective? Are there treatments that may be different for exposure to the product?”
The proximity to rail lines is significant for community institutions that maintain evacuation plans for any emergency.
The Spokane Community College campus is bordered on the south by the Union Pacific rail line and sits about half a mile north of BNSF’s tracks.
“One of those things that we’ve anticipated is what would happen with a chemical spill there on the tracks or a wreck,” said Greg Stevens, the chief administration officer for Community Colleges of Spokane.
In a worst-case scenario, the college would need to move about 7,000 students and 1,000 faculty members, clearing buildings with the aid of text messages and email alerts.
Spokane’s medical hub also is near the railroad. Deaconess Hospital sits three blocks south of the elevated BNSF tracks. The hospital has drawn up plans for evacuating patients and employees in a catastrophe and conducts disaster drills annually, said Sasha Weiler, spokeswoman for Deaconess and Valley hospitals.
“We certainly look at lots of scenarios. We play out scenarios like big chemical spills and fires,” Weiler said.
Reducing the risk
Downtown Spokane has not had a major rail incident in more than two decades.
Early on Christmas Eve 1991, two rail cars plummeted 80 feet onto Interstate 90 when a freight train derailed on the Latah Creek Bridge in west Spokane. The Burlington Northern train contained no hazardous materials and no one was hurt, though a Greyhound bus on the freeway nearly was hit by the falling cars.
On April 22, 1994, poisonous fumes from a tank car on an idling train forced at least 500 people to evacuate an eight-block section of downtown. The tanker contained 141,000 pounds of ammonium sulfide, an ingredient in making fertilizer. A pressure-relief valve had opened after the liquid chemical warmed, expanded and increased pressure in the tank, officials said.
Both incidents helped emergency agencies hone their response methods, Williams said. He also thinks Spokane is well-prepared for disaster because of a series of crises in recent decades, including Fire Storm in October 1991, the Fairchild base mass shooting in June 1994, Ice Storm in November 1996 and the massive Whitley Fuel fire in July 2007.
The Association of American Railroads proudly notes that 99.998 percent of rail shipments of hazardous materials, including oil, reach their destination without a spill.
Looking strictly at oil shipments, however, spills are spiking. Through November 2013, crude oil releases were reported from 137 rail cars, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal incident reports. In 2009, before the drilling boom was underway, just one such release was reported.
BNSF works to reduce the likelihood of hazmat incidents but also helps communities prepare to respond if one does occur, Melonas said.
The railroad held free hazmat training for first responders at its Parkwater fueling and switching yard on East Trent Avenue in July 2012 and another for Medical Lake and Kootenai County crews last August. It’s arranging another training session with Spokane County Fire District 9 to include local and regional fire units, Melonas said.
The railroad also has spent more than $225 million on track improvements in Washington over the past two years, including $30 million in the Spokane corridor, he said. The work includes new rails and ties to prevent derailments.
The carrier also has staged special equipment and hazmat responders across its network, including in Spokane and Pasco, to deal with spills or fires involving crude oil and other substances, he said. Around its network, the railroad maintains a fleet of industrial firefighting foam trailers on hazmat routes.
In the region that stretches from the Great Lakes to the Northwest coast, no one has died from a hazardous materials release on the BNSF network since an employee was killed at the railroad’s Vancouver terminal in 1981, Melonas said.
Because railroads are federally regulated, local communities are limited in their ability to influence safety.
Still, resolutions and letters to federal regulators and Congress can make a difference, Stuckart believes.
“We’re the second-largest city in the state,” he said. “They’re listening and hearing us.”
Much of the focus is on the aging tank car fleet. About 85 percent of the cars that carry oil and other flammable liquids were built under old safety standards, and the cars are prone to split open in accidents, as happened last month outside Fargo.
The railroad industry favors better designs for rail cars, which are owned by shipping customers. The Association of American Railroads, a trade group that includes BNSF, said all tank cars used to transport crude oil, ethanol and flammable liquids should be retrofitted or phased out and new cars built to more stringent standards.
Tank cars ordered after October 2011 require thicker, more puncture-resistant steel shells, rollover protection and enhanced heat shields at both ends. Even these newer tank cars would require some modifications under proposed new federal guidelines.
The oil industry resists the changes, which would cost an estimated $1 billion.
Some Washington refineries taking Bakken crude by rail already are using newer tank cars, including ones in Tacoma, Anacortes and Cherry Point just south of the Canadian border.
Containers aren’t the only concern. What’s in the tank cars is getting a closer look as well.
The North Dakota fire prompted the Transportation Department to issue a safety alert saying high-grade Bakken crude may be more likely to ignite at lower temperatures than other crude.
Oil industry executives objected to the government’s safety alert and said the real issue is train collisions, defective tracks and other railroad operations.
In Spokane, officials will closely follow how the railroads, oil industry and regulators hash out safer ways to move oil from the heartland to the coasts.
“Most of that is going to have to be done at the federal level,” Williams said. “And it’s going to take time.”