The Bakken oil boom
Domestic oil production is on the rise and more of it is moving by rail because not enough pipeline infrastructure is in place. At the same time there are very real concerns being raised across the nation and here in Western New York.
A December 30th train derailment in North Dakota clearly highlights concerns about shipping crude by rail. The derailment and explosion prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue a safety alert in early January that warns about the potential high volatility of crude from the Bakken region in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota. “…recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil…” the alert states.
The Bakken region is one of the most active oil fields in the U.S. — producing almost a million barrels a day.
“North Dakota is the fastest growing oil field in America,” New York Senator Charles Schumer says. “40 percent of the oil that they produce comes right through Buffalo on its way to refineries in the East Coast.”
Schumer has been sounding the alarm about oil trains since last summer.
“Unlike in other areas they don’t go through empty spaces. They go through very populated areas. So, if you have, god forbid, one explosion like the one in Canada or the one in North Dakota you could have far many more people hurt and even killed,” Schumer explained. It’s estimated that crude oil shipments by rail have increased by over 400 percent since 2005.
“As they produce more and more crude oil, it has to be shipped somehow. And without the pipeline infrastructure that leaves tank cars, ” Jeffrey Hartman, Erie County’s Haz-Mat Team Commander tells the News 4 Investigative Team. But regulators are concerned about the safety of DOT-111 tank cars — considered the workhouse of the rail industry.
Today, most of them are older models with a record of tank failures — according to the National Transportation Safety Board. “When you’ve got a 30 year life on a tank car — you don’t want those tanks rolling around any longer than you have to,” Hartman says.
“They should be made safe, particularly now,” according to Senator Schumer. “This is a brand new phenomenon. The amount of oil that’s transported by rail cars almost doubles every two years.
When rail tank cars become “rolling projectiles”
They travel by rail carrying explosive cargo. Hundreds of them roll through Western New York every day.
“They are really rolling projectiles. They have the potential to act just like a bomb would,” Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield says.
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Many of them are older models, known as DOT-111 tank cars.
And in recent months there has been a spate of fiery derailments involving these cars carrying crude.
“They’re explosive. Very volatile, ” Commissioner Whitfield tells News 4. Local first responders had a close call in December when DOT-111 cars derailed in a Cheektowaga rail yard. Luckily, they did not leak.
“Two of them were the newer cars. I don’t exactly know the code number on them, and three of them were the older type cars,” according to Cheektowaga Emergency Services Manager Earl Loder.
Did we get lucky on that one? “Anytime we don’t have a problem we’re lucky, yes,” Loder says.
But not every community has been as fortunate.
Last July, nearly 50 people in a small Quebec town died after a train carrying light crude derailed and exploded.
“It’s hard. I don’t have nobody here so I don’t know what’s going to happen to me,” a shaken Quebec woman told reporters.
Investigators say 72 of the cars were DOT-111’s — the same type that roll through our town. The National Transportation Safety Board states the DOT-111’s “poor accident performance continues to raise serious concerns.”
Specifically, the agency notes that DOT-111 “cars have a high incidence of tank failures.” What is Haz-Mat Commander Jeffrey Hartman’s worst fear?
“The whole tank just ruptures at once,” he says.
It’s a frightening scenario; especially if it happens in a populated area.
Hartman is well aware of the stakes involved with a catastrophic tank car failure.
“In the case of a fire, now you’ve got all this flammable liquid flying out in every direction. Everything catches on fire at once,” Hartman says.
Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield says when it comes to transporting hazardous materials by rail car — the Buffalo-area is one of the busiest in the nation.
“It could happen anywhere. Absolutely. It can happen anywhere that these cars are,” he says. “Just by the grace of god we haven’t had a very serious incident where we’ve had the kinds of things that have happened in other communities. ”
In some cases DOT-111 rail tank cars can roll up fairly close to residential neighborhoods, particularly in the Buffalo-area.
As you might imagine it has some people very concerned.
“It’s very close to home,” resident David Brandt says.
Brandt has lived in the same Buffalo neighborhood his whole life, and says he’s aware of the potential danger.
“You’re hearing more and more about them with the accidents and the leaks, and this and that,” Brandt tells News 4. “I think definitely something should be done.”
Today, roughly 92-thousand DOT-111 tank cars are moving flammable liquids, according to the Association of American Railroads.
And while the railroad industry is pushing to phase out the cars, the energy industry which owns or leases most of them, is fighting back. The railroad group, whose members include the major freight railroads, claims about 78-thousand of those cars might require retrofitting or phase out.
AAR has been pressing federal regulators for improved tank car safety.
Since 2011, new DOT-111 tank cars have been built to better protect against punctures and leaks.
The Railway Supply Institute, a trade group for tank car owners, supports the formal adoption of safety standards for newly built tank cars that have already been adopted by the Association of American Railroads Tank Car Committee. The new standard includes enhanced end of tank protection in the form of head shields, thicker tank car steel for certain car types, and top fittings protection.
But according to New York Senator Charles Schumer, the energy companies, which for the most part own or lease the cars, are fighting a robust phase-out plan.
“The energy industry is saying well let the rail industry route the trains through different routes. Make the trains go slower. Those are not bad suggestions. But when you’re dealing with the magnitude of oil they want to ship it’s impossible to not send through places like Buffalo,” Schumer says. What’s been the industry feedback?
“…strong rail cars are in important part of the equation — but the first step is to address the root causes of rail accidents,” according to the American Petroleum Institute. “…safety benefits will be achieved more efficiently through improving standards for new cars, as opposed to retrofitting existing cars,” according to the American Chemistry Council.
In 2010, 99.998 percent of rail Haz-Mat shipments reached their destination without a release caused by a train accident, according to the Association of American Railroads. AAR points out that rail Haz-Mat accident rates are down 91 percent since 1980 and 38 percent since 2000.
Recently, top officials from the railroad and oil industries met behind closed doors with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
While the industry recently agreed to consider voluntary safety changes aimed at preventing oil train accidents — Senator Schumer is not completely convinced it will go far enough.
“It’s sort of a little bit of the old Abbott and Costello. The oil companies say let the railroads make it safer,” Schumer says. “The railroads say let the oil companies make it safer. And often times safety falls in the middle.”
Despite the oil and railroad industries promising to do something, Schumer thinks “tougher stuff” will be necessary going forward.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials has been examining railcar design. But the agency has indicated that permanent standards are not likely to happen until 2015.
Emergency Responders Lack Timely Information
But there’s another concern.
Do first responders have timely and accurate information about flammable cargo traveling by rail?
“The more information we give our men and women the better they’re able to respond to the needs of the community,” Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield says. “Anytime we can get good information early in an event it helps us to mitigate that event.”
He says right now if first responders are called out to a train derailment involving a hazardous product — there would be immediate communication with the railroad.
Plus, they look for placards on the sides of rail cars that indicate what’s being carried.
But is that enough? Federal investigators say in some cases emergency responders did not get timely and accurate information.
In fact, the NTSB has been urging the government to require that railroads provide accurate, real-time information.
Does the Buffalo Fire Department have any idea what’s rolling on the rails at any given moment? “Not until we see the placard. Not until we look up what that chemical is. Not until we communicate directly with that rail car company. We don’t know what’s coming through,” Whitfield says. “We have no way of knowing that.”
One of the biggest rail-based freight operators serving North America is CSX.
When asked about the movement of flammable materials by rail through Western New York — CSX issued the following statement: “The railroad does not publicly discuss information regarding hazardous materials shipments but does work closely with emergency response agencies to provide information on request.”
Erie County Emergency Management Commissioner Daniel Neaverth says receiving real-time information would be a plus — but he’s concerned about who would have access to it. “Pushing information is one thing. But do you really want everybody within your organization knowing information about some type of hazardous material or some type of explosive that’s going to be going through,” Neaverth says.
Probably not — but it could make a difference to the men and women on the frontlines of Haz-Mat response.
“The more information we have the sooner in the process the safer it is for everybody,” Haz-Mat Commander Jeffrey Hartman tells the News 4 Investigative Team.
And safer is better — especially for people like Jeff Gaud who reside in the shadow of flammable cargo rolling down the rail.
“Anything to make it safer. I mean you’re talking about people’s live at stake, really,” Gaud said.