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Is Seattle ready for an oil train fire?

BNSF and the fire department have made preparations, but access to some tracks, particularly under downtown, might be difficult.
A July 2013 oil train fire killed 47 people in in Lac Magentic, Quebec.

A July 2013 oil train fire killed 47 people in in Lac Magentic, Quebec. Greenpeace Canada/Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Cars designed to carry oil on a train passing through Montana on the North Dakota-Anacortes routes for Bakken field oil.

Cars designed to carry oil on a train passing through Montana on the North Dakota-Anacortes routes for Bakken field oil. Roy Luck/Flickr

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.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Mar 13, 9:20 a.m. Inappropriate

So let's see, we don't want to build pipelines and we don't like oil by rail, guess we'll just haul it by tanker truck like the good old days. Much safer that way. Funny that the anti-rail folks never mention the safety hazards or delays or relatively higher fuel costs associated with hauling coal, oil, grain, airplane parts, etc. via the road system. I had to laugh at the Edmonds mayor who griped about delays at the Edmonds ferry dock due to BNSF/Amtrack train traffic. Some days it takes 45 minutes to get from Seattle to Edmonds due to the I-5 backups. And I'm supposed to whine along with him about an extra 2-minute wait to let some train cars roll by?

Posted Thu, Mar 13, 9:42 a.m. Inappropriate

BNSF is owned by Warren Buffet's corporation.He is one of the richest people in the world. He should should fix this "traveling bomb" train danger.He is supposed to be smart. He should have done the research on this type of oil before he began shipping it. If he cannot produce the data proving his oil transport is safe our electeds should force him to stop these traveling bombs.

Posted Thu, Mar 13, 2:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Made to Order Movie Script:
In a massive pileup and fire in the 100+ year old BNSF tunnel under Seattle, temperatures got so high that it melted Big Bertha after months of delay getting started again, which happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

007

Posted Fri, Mar 14, 9:22 a.m. Inappropriate

I happen to have a view from my home of the tracks as they run between Golden Gardens and Carkeek Park. On average 3 oil trains pass by each day now, with between 125 and 150 tanker cars. So the real number is closer to 7 million gallons a day passing through Seattle not 3 million as reported by BNSF. During the day the trains are moving at about 25 mph, but at night they speed up to around 40 mph. And this is through an area which saw over 60 track closures for landslides last winter. How long until an oil train derails here? The odds are it will happen.

ep

Posted Fri, Mar 14, 3:55 p.m. Inappropriate

How many train derailments have there ever been on these tracks, annually or historically?

Posted Sat, Mar 15, 8:05 p.m. Inappropriate

By the time Seattle decided to take action on an oil train fire, the thing would have burned itself out.

Djinn

Posted Sat, Mar 15, 8:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Hopefully they never have to deal with the problem.

Djinn

Posted Sun, Mar 16, 7:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Would someone tell me why refineries are not built where the oil is - in this case - the Bakken fields? Then we would transporting refined material which would be less flammable and thus safer than this kind of crude.

m-t-e

Posted Mon, Mar 31, 7:13 a.m. Inappropriate

No oil! No coal! No nuke! No gas! No nothin!

Simon

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