Is Seattle ready for an oil train fire?

Lawmakers in Olympia put some restrictions on trains delivering crude oil to Western Washington's ports. Credit: 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.

But the department also admits that the specialized equipment they would use to extinguish such a blaze has limitations. And derailments in steep terrain, or in the rail tunnel that passes under downtown, could pose significant access problems.

The city’s current “Disaster Readiness and Response Plan” includes guidelines for oil and hazardous materials incidents. The fire department would take the lead during these types of events. The plan points specifically to “Unit 77,” the department’s hazardous materials response team. The city also has mutual response agreements with other fire departments and could receive assistance from state and federal agencies.

Laurel Nelson, deputy director for the Office of Emergency Management said the citywide response plan is currently undergoing an update, and that this was an excellent opportunity to consider the types of resources an oil train accident would require.

“We’re constantly planning,” she said. “We try not to wait until the next bad thing happens.”

The Seattle Fire Department replied to over three dozen emailed questions, during the last two weeks, regarding their ability to respond to an oil train incident, but did not acknowledge a request to discuss the plans by phone. The department and BNSF say that they’re currently working together on accident response plans, including how to get firefighters and equipment to difficult to access tracks. Firefighters will take part in training with the railroad this September, which will include hands on instruction using a tank car.

Some key equipment would come into play when fighting an oil fire. Spraying water on burning crude spreads it around and does not put it out. Firefighters use specialized foam to blanket and smother the flames. The foam has a consistency similar to soap suds. It comes concentrated and is mixed at a ratio of 1 to 3 percent per gallon of water.

“The most important thing with crude is going to be proper foam application,” said Brent Gaspard, marketing director for Williams Fire & Hazard Control. The Texas-based company has specialized in industrial and hazardous material fire response and training for 34 years and also manufactures one brand of the foam.

Each of the Seattle Fire Department’s 33 engine companies has trucks that carry 25 gallons of foam concentrate. The department also has two “foam wagons” that carry 250 gallons. But one of the wagons is currently out of service undergoing engine repairs. For blazes near the water, a fireboat carries 6,000 gallons of the flame killing substance.

BNSF spokesperson Courtney Wallace said the railroad has foam trailers stationed in the Puget Sound area but did not say how many or where exactly they are located.

Asked if the fire department has enough foam on hand to deal with a major oil train fire, spokesperson Kyle Moore said: “There are limits to our firefighting foam capabilities.” 

“It would depend on the quantity of the burning materials and the extent of fire,” he added. “Extinguishment may not be the only option.”

Moving un-breached rail cars away from a fire or cooling them with water are other possibilities. As tank cars full of oil are heated in a fire, their internal pressure builds up. Eventually, the cars’ metal exteriors can erupt in dramatic explosions.

BNSF operated the train that crashed in North Dakota. During the accident response the railroad provided machinery to move tank cars full of oil away from the fire.

“There were probably 75 or 80 that needed to be pulled out of harm's way so they didn't overheat,” Rogness, the local emergency manager, said.

According to BNSF spokesperson Wallace, the company has similar equipment in place locally. Here in Seattle, the company has a crane that can be used to pick up rail cars. In Tacoma, BNSF has front-end loaders and “side boom” tractors, which look like bulldozers with a sideways crane arm.

Rogness complimented BNSF’s response to the accident near Casselton, and said the railroad brought in staff and equipment from as far away as Texas.

“They were really good partners in this thing,” he said. “We couldn't have done it without them.”

The rapid uptick in crude-by-rail shipments is due largely to an oil boom in North Dakota. The limited pipeline capacity in the region has producers turning to rail in order to move the oil to refineries. In 2010, 29,605 tank cars of crude oil originated in the U.S., according to the American Association of Railroads, a trade organization. That number skyrocketed to an estimated 400,000 tank cars in 2013.

With the rise in rail shipments showing no signs of abating, railroads, refiners and the federal government are taking steps to improve safety. Regulators and the industry have focused specifically on the DOT-111 tank cars, which are the most commonly used kind of tank car in the U.S. These were also the cars that caught fire in the North Dakota, Alabama and Quebec accidents.

According to the Association of American Railroads, which is petitioning the federal government for stronger tank car regulations, roughly 92,000 DOT-111 tank cars are used to move flammable liquids, such as crude and ethanol. But only 18,000 of those tank cars are built to the latest industry safety standards.

The railroad industry voluntarily adopted upgraded tank car standards in October 2011. Compared to older cars, DOT-111s built since then have thicker tanks, added protection around top fittings where oil is poured into the cars, and half-inch thick shields on both tank ends.

BNSF recently announced that it would buy 5,000 new tank cars built to even higher standards. The cars will have tank walls that are thicker than the post-October 2011 models, relief valves to bleed off high-pressure, as well as thermal liners, which insulate the liquids inside the car from heat and help them survive longer in a fire.

Tesoro Corp., which operates a refinery in Anacortes and also owns tank cars, has said that by mid-2014 its entire rail fleet will meet the 2011 DOT-111 industry standards and will have relief valves. The company will also “make rail car design a part of its commercial considerations with all business partners,” according to a recent press release.

Meanwhile, the DOT's federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is working on new regulations for tank cars carrying flammable liquids. The new rules will likely require features similar to those being adopted by companies like BNSF and Tesoro, including the thermal jackets, thicker tanks and better-protected top fittings.

The Seattle City Council resolution urges DOT to implement tighter tank car standards. Councilmember Mike O’Brien believes that more stringent regulations won’t happen “unless a lot of people at the local level ask people at the federal level to change the law.”

One other special source of concern in Seattle is the mile-long Great Northern Tunnel, which runs under downtown. The fire department and BNSF have discussed responding to tunnel accidents. And BNSF has monitoring equipment in place on the northbound track (the direction in which trains loaded with North Dakota oil would travel to get to refineries in Anacortes or Ferndale); the equipment is designed to detect mechanical problems that could cause a derailment. 

Still, the tunnel "would present significant challenges in access, water supply and movement of personnel and equipment,” the fire department’s Moore said.

Tunnel accidents have happened in other towns.

A CSX freight train derailed in Baltimore's Howard Street Tunnel in 2001. One of the cars was carrying tripropylene, a flammable liquid similar to paint thinner. The substance caught fire and ignited surrounding cars carrying paper, pulpwood and plywood, while another tank car leaked hydrochloric acid, according to a U.S. Fire Administration report. The fire burned out of control for about 24 hours and reached temperatures up to 1,500 degrees. Interstate highways and subways shutdown and nearby residents were advised to stay indoors.

Moore said that burning off the oil would be an option if a train carrying crude oil caught fire in the tunnel. “We have hazardous materials response plans in place," he said, "which would apply to an emergency inside the Great Northern Tunnel.”

Routing oil around cities might seem like the safest bet. But the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's deputy administrator Butters points out that “particularly when it comes to crude oil, the ultimate destination is a refinery, and most refineries are located in areas that are populated.”

“At some point,” he said, “those commodities have to go to a customer.”

Butters also noted that while response preparations are important, preventing derailments in the first place is preferable. Reduced train speeds and track maintenance are two good precautions to keep trains on the rails, he said. BNSF spokesman Melonas said that trains carrying oil through Seattle do not exceed 25 miles per hour and that the company is “investing millions” in Washington state track upgrades in 2014.

Because the federal government regulates railroads, the city has no authority to ban oil trains. The council’s resolution does, however, ask railroads to consider restrictions on petroleum shipments through downtown Seattle. It also requests that the state require shippers to disclose more information about the amount and type of oil transported by rail in Washington.

“BNSF will have to review the resolution,” Melonas said.

Councilmember O’Brien said he would like to see the region's railways used to transport cargo other than oil. 

"The ultimate answer is the oil needs to stay in the ground," he said. “There isn’t a community we should be running these trains through."

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