It was the type of accident that has cities around the country, including Seattle, examining their ability to respond to train wrecks involving tank cars of highly flammable petroleum crude oil.
A 106-car eastbound train crashed around 2 p.m. on Dec. 30, 2013. It had collided with a derailed car from a grain train that was travelling west. A total of 21 tank cars carrying crude oil ran off the tracks, some of them catching fire. The derailment occurred between two snow-covered fields, less than one mile from the western edge of Casselton, N.D., a town of about 2,300.
It was a cold day. Temperatures dropped to 15-below-zero. The foam used to extinguish flaming oil froze and couldn’t be sprayed. Firefighters decided to let the wreck burn, according to the emergency manager for Cass County, where Casselton is located. Un-punctured cars were heated by the flames and eventually ruptured in towering explosions. It took between 16 and 18 hours for the thick, black smoke cloud to clear. Eighteen breached cars released about 400,000 gallons of oil, according to a preliminary accident report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
“With the amount of train traffic coming through Cass County on a regular basis, we knew we were probably at risk of something happening,” emergency manager Dave Rogness said. “We were never expecting that it would happen that quickly.”
“When it did, it did,” he added.
Prompted by concerns that a similar incident could happen in Seattle, the City Council adopted a resolution earlier this week that asks the fire department and the Office of Emergency Management to review oil train accident response plans. It also leans on federal and state authorities to take a harder line regulating rail shipments of oil.
The Casselton accident was not the only fiery wreck last year that has local governments in many areas worried. A runaway train crashed and exploded in the small Quebec town of Lac Megantic last July, killing 47 people and, according to Transport Canada, causing $200 million of property damage. The accident happened around 1:15 a.m. Some who died were at a popular cafe near the center of the crash. In November, a 90-car train derailed near a trestle in Alabama and some of the 20 derailed tankers burst into flames.
Each of the trains carried crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken fields, which "may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil," according to a Jan. 2 safety alert issued by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is part of the federal Department of Transportation.
This is the same oil that trains commonly deliver to Washington refineries. It is unclear how frequently the cargo enters Seattle's city limits. BNSF Railway Co., which operates most of the trains, would not share that information, citing security concerns and “customer privilege.” Company spokesperson Gus Melonas did say that on average 1.5 BNSF trains, typically with 100-110 tank cars of crude, move through the Pacific Northwest daily. Each car holds about 30,000 gallons of oil, equating to roughly 3 million gallons per train.
The number of trains could increase. A new Phillips 66 rail terminal is scheduled to come online in Ferndale later this year and Shell Oil Co. is awaiting construction permits for a project in Anacortes.
With some of this flammable cargo passing through downtown Seattle a question arises: Is the city ready to respond if there's an accident? The answer is complicated and could depend largely on the size and location of the accident.
"Although the rail system is really safe," notes Tim Butters, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's deputy director, "the volume of this stuff is so huge. When you have an incident, even though they're infrequent, the consequences are significant."
The Seattle Fire Department says it has the expertise to deal with an oil train fire. All firefighters in operational roles take annual HazMat refresher courses that cover flammable liquids, and some personnel receive training that meets advanced National Fire Protection Association requirements for hazardous materials responders. This advanced training has sections devoted specifically to tank car incidents.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!