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Two more derailment explosions underline continuing risks of North American oil trains

09 March 2015

On March 5, a BNSF Railway oil train burst into flames after derailing near the town of Galena in north-western Illinois. This was followed on March 7 by the derailment and explosion of a Canadian National Railway train carrying crude from Alberta in a remote area of northern Ontario. Neither incident caused any casualties.

Lac Megantic, July 2013 - Image: TSBC
Lac Megantic, July 2013 - Image: TSBC

In the Illinois incident, the train derailed in a hilly and heavily wooded area near where a tributary joins the Mississippi, about three miles south of Galena. In a statement, BNSF said 21 of the train's 103 tank cars loaded with light Bakken crude left the tracks and at least five of them ruptured and caught fire.

Firefighters could only access the train wreck site on a bike path, and had to pull back because of the intensity of the flames and allow the blaze to burn itself out, according to Galena fire officials.

Federal and state railroad investigators are on the scene, as are officials from the federal EPA and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to monitor the situation, but the railroad and Illinois Emergency Management officials said that no spilled oil had reached the waters of the tributary or the Mississippi yet.

This was the third significant fire caused by a derailment of trains carrying crude from the Bakken area of North Dakota in the past three weeks, raising further questions about the volatility of the oil and the safety of the tank cars used to transport crude.

BNSF says the tank cars that derailed were all newer models known as 1232s, which are designed to be less prone to rupture than older tank cars, called DOT-111s. The rail industry voluntarily started using cars at the 1232 standard in 2011, with slightly thicker shells and half-height head shields, after a series of incidents involving DOT-111s, and anticipating that federal regulators would soon require sturdier tank cars.

But there are growing concerns that the 1232s are not fit for purpose, either. The Galena derailment is the third explosive derailment involving 1232s in three weeks, including one in West Virginia last month. That CSX train was carrying three million gallons of North Dakota crude when it derailed, shooting fireballs into the sky, leaking oil into a nearby river and burning to the ground a nearby house. This incident forced hundreds from their homes in freezing weather conditions.

Critics say the US Department of Transportation has been too slow to develop effective new tank car standards, even after the explosion of a runaway oil train in Lac Megantic, Quebec, in July, 2013, which killed 47 people and razed dozens of buildings in the town.

Bakken crude is particularly volatile and combusts easily in the right circumstances. New state rules will go into effect in North Dakota on April 1 that will require oil producers to remove excess natural gas from the crude before shipping it by rail to help reduce volatility.

A recent Reuters report said that the Obama administration considered national standards to control explosive gas in oil trains last year but rejected the move, deciding to leave the rules to North Dakota alone.

The Ontario incident took place near the community of Gogoma and involved crude from Alberta oil sands. The fire from this derailment damaged a bridge and left five tank cars in a waterway.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has dispatched investigators to the scene. A spokesman for the board said initial reports indicate 30 to 40 railcars were involved in the derailment at a site about 22 miles from a February 14 incident, also involving a Canadian National Railway crude train.

This resulted in a massive explosion and the spillage of more than 1 million litres of bitumen into the environment, after 15 carriage tanks were breached.

A CNR spokesman issued  an apology to the region’s residents for the disturbance caused by a second derailment in the area “in such a short period of time.”

A spokeswoman for Ontario Provincial Police said nearby residents were advised not to consume water. She added that as a precaution, residents of Gogoma, a community of 400 people 117 miles north of the mining centre of Sudbury, were advised to stay indoors.

Canada is banning older DOT-111 tank cars from May 2017, has improved emergency preparedness, and last month unveiled a levy to be paid by crude-by-rail operators to fund improved safety.

The industry is resisting some of these measures, which would force it to refit 50,000 train carriages in a decade. This, it says, will threaten oil-by-rail transportation, which is an absolute necessity  given the lack of pipeline capacity.

Canadian railroads are expected to carry 700,000 barrels of oil a day by next year, up from less than 300,000 in 2009.

According to Ecowatch.com, in the US and Canada, railroads carried 9,500 carloads of crude oil, which rose to more than 435,000 carloads in 2013. In the first half of 2014, 258,541 carloads were delivered. Rail imports of Canadian crude oil to the US have increased 20 times since 2011. And as carloads have increased, so have accidents.  Ecowatch says more oil was spilled from railroad cars in 2013 than the entire period from 1975-2012.

Bakken crude, with its exceptional volatility, caused some of the most destructive derailments, including the one in West Virginia. But there is increasing evidence that Alberta tar sands oil, the cargo involved in the Ontario derailment, could be just as dangerous.


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