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King County worriedly preps for oil train fire

Tank cars hours after they derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in Interbay. Credit: Bill Lucia

Five rail cars carrying petroleum crude oil derail and catch fire near Boeing Field, about five miles south of downtown Seattle. That was the scenario during a tabletop exercise King County held Tuesday. 

The planning exercise took place less than two weeks after three tank cars carrying highly flammable crude oil from North Dakota derailed in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood. That incident was relatively benign. None of the cars leaked or caught fire. The mock scenario discussed on Tuesday was designed to be far more precarious.

“This is an emerging public safety threat,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine at a press conference on Wednesday. “And we need to have our emergency preparedness folks really up to speed on it and well-coordinated. And that’s what yesterday’s exercise was all about.”

The exercise highlighted some of the complications responders might face when dealing with burning tank cars of crude oil, such as monitoring toxic smoke, transporting evacuated people and delivering information to the public.

Between eight and 13 trains operated by BNSF Railway Co. pass through King County each week carrying crude oil, according to information the railroad released in June to the Washington Military Department.

A local fire chief involved in the exercise acknowledged on Wednesday that responders would most likely have to let some of the fuel burn off if one of those trains crashed and five tank cars were ablaze.

The cars commonly used to transport petroleum crude oil have a capacity of about 30,000 gallons apiece. In past wrecks, un-breached cars, heated by surrounding flames, have ruptured in dramatic explosions.

"We'll want to probably suppress the fire enough to assess the integrity and exposure to the other tank cars. We'd certainly want to minimize life risks," said Mark Chubb, Fire Chief of King County Fire District 20. 

"It's unusual for all five tank cars to breach," he also said.

Battling flames would not be the only problem that burning tank cars of crude oil would present for responders.

"We have to be mindful of the impact of the smoke column on aviation," Chubb said. He also noted that a large oil train fire could create problems on Interstate 5, even if the smoke and flames do not reach the highway. “The distraction of an event of this scale,” he said, “is going to be highly disruptive."

Chubb added: "After you grapple with the fact that it's a fire and it's going to go on a while, it's all about logistics."

Walt Hubbard, director the King County Office of Emergency Management, viewed Tuesday’s exercise as helpful, because it got people from different agencies together in the same place, talking about how they would coordinate and communicate if there were a serious crude oil train accident.

In addition to emergency responders, staff from local transportation and public health departments attended, as did officials from federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Representatives from BNSF were also on hand. The company operated the train that derailed in Interbay.

For Hubbard, having the railroad representatives at the exercise was important.

“We want to keep them engaged,” he said. Hubbard specifically pointed to dialogue that took place between BNSF representatives and fire officials about what kinds of equipment and people the railroad could deploy after an accident.

“That was a very good exchange,” he said.

Another topic that came up during the exercise was evacuations. If a rail car of crude oil is on fire, U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines recommend that responders consider evacuating people within a half-mile of the accident scene.

The risk of an explosion would be one immediate reason to evacuate the area around the fire. But Chubb, the King County fire chief, also noted that toxic smoke is a hazard, and said that responders would consult with officials from public health agencies and the EPA when considering whether to tell people to leave the area.

“Evacuations have their own risks,” Chubb said. For example, evacuees might be exposed to toxic fumes once they are on the move.

Chubb responded to an incident earlier in his career that resulted in a large evacuation.

While he was working for a fire department in Ohio during July of 1986, a rail car containing 12,000 gallons of white phosphorous was breached and caught fire during a derailment in the city of Miamisburg, near Dayton. Adjacent cars carrying animal fat, newsprint and vehicles also went up in flames.

White phosphorous is highly flammable and can ignite when exposed to air. The tank car carrying the substance caught fire on July 8 and burned until July 12, according to an after accident report prepared by the Miami Valley Disaster Services Authority.

In retrospect, Chubb sees the decision to evacuate 30,000 people after the accident as a mistake. “It was a bad idea,” he said. “The smoke that was being released in the atmosphere was not terribly dangerous.”

Evacuations, he said, can quickly lead to problems with transportation and providing mass care for evacuees. According to Chubb, the evacuation after the Miamisburg accident later resulted in a dispute between the state, local municipalities and the railroad that operated the train.

“The best available guidance now is to think about sheltering in place as your first option,” Chubb said.

There have been a number of high-profile accidents involving trains carrying crude oil since last year, including one in Quebec that killed 47 people.

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently released a draft version of new rules for transporting crude oil and other flammable liquids by rail, which includes new tank car standards, speed restrictions and route analysis requirements. The National Transportation Safety Board has called for rerouting oil trains around major population centers.

Constantine has brought together a group of more than 50 elected leaders from across the Northwest and British Columbia for an initiative called the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance. One of the group’s aims is to speak with a unified voice about oil train safety concerns.

“Preparedness is necessary but not sufficient,” Constantine said. “I believe that we need to advocate strongly for safer trains, or a reduction in trains, or having trains go elsewhere, or moving quickly to a green energy future.”

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