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Oil trains carrying volatile Bakken crude have local officials preparing for the worst

A westbound oil train rolls past Browne’s Addition as it passes through Spokane on Wednesday. (Jesse Tinsley)
A westbound oil train rolls past Browne’s Addition as it passes through Spokane on Wednesday. (Jesse Tinsley)

The likelihood of a fiery, Quebec-style oil train derailment in the Inland Northwest is considered remote but authorities already have begun planning for the worst as shipments of Bakken crude rolling through Spokane keep growing.

“If we have a moderate to severe event, we’re going to be stretched very thin,” said Deputy Spokane Valley Fire Chief Andy Hail. “We’re looking at a potential depletion of local resources.”

Although activists and others have been sounding the alarm over oil train safety for more than a year, and the railroad industry is pledging improvements, concern is spreading.

Hail met this week with Spokane Valley City Council members, who had specifically requested the safety briefing. The council, unlike other cities, has taken no position on the oil train issue but has expressed concern over the progress of safety improvements and the availability of funding to build overpasses that would reduce the number of intersections where streets and rail lines intersect.

In Spokane, emergency crews will be providing the city’s Public Safety Committee with a similar briefing next month. The Spokane City Council already has called on state and federal regulators to aggressively strengthen railroad safety.

Among the questions Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said he wants answered is whether the region has adequate supplies of fire-extinguishing foam needed to battle crude oil explosions. He also wants blast radius estimates.

Much of the growing concern can be linked to last year’s explosive derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people and charred the city’s downtown. In the following months, fiery train wrecks occurred in Alabama and North Dakota as well.

Up to 60 trains a day roll through Spokane and Spokane Valley, with about two of them loaded with Bakken crude. The number of milelong oil trains headed to ports and refineries on the West Coast is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years.

Fire and police agencies across the Inland Northwest already have coordinated response plans for a variety of potential catastrophes.

Now, they’re adding oil train derailment to the list of potential disasters, specifically the highly flammable Bakken crude.

“It’s got very significant risk of fire spread,” Hail said. “It’s very challenging for us to extinguish.”

This spring, emergency response agencies from across the Inland Northwest will meet in Spokane Valley to test their preparedness for handling a major derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials. Organizers say the May exercise is still being designed but likely will involve a simulated oil train disaster.

It’s intended to find weaknesses in regional response plans and develop strategies for shoring them up.

“Regulatory requirements are way behind right now,” Hail said.

But he noted that railroads are taking steps to improve safety and emergency response on their own.

BNSF Railway Co., the dominant railroad in the Spokane area, has committed to purchasing 5,000 improved oil tanker cars with thicker walls and other safety features, largely because of Bakken crude’s flammability. The railroad also has installed electronic equipment along lines to monitor for potential mechanical malfunctions in trains rolling over them, and is able to shut down locomotives remotely, if necessary, said Hail, who has met with BNSF safety crews.

“The likelihood of a catastrophic event here … is very small,” Hail said. “But in our business you never say ‘never.’ ”

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