A string of train derailments involving tank cars carrying crude oil from the Bakken field in North Dakota has spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil, set off explosive fires and forced the evacuation of hundreds of people from North Dakota to Virginia over the past couple of years.
The dramatic rise in oil transported by train and reports of fiery derailments have raised concerns in Louisiana about the possibility of a crude oil derailment near a populated area and the state’s ability to respond.
“I remain skeptical that we can respond to these things,” said Devin Martin, an associate organizing representative with the Sierra Club. “By their very nature, these events are unexpected, and in the case of a derailment leading to an explosion, there is little to no response time before the blast.”
Specifics on how much oil passes through Louisiana on rail cars and where exactly it travels are kept secret from the public by the State Police, as are details of response plans.
But state and railroad officials assert that training, safety precautions and communication among agencies keep the state prepared for an emergency. State Police representatives, who take the lead in train derailment responses, add that there are so many other potentially dangerous materials hauled on Louisiana rail lines that crude oil from the Bakken field is not a huge worry.
“Bakken oil is way down on our list right now,” said State Police Command Technician Taylor Moss. “People are trained; they’re prepared. We just hope we don’t have to experience it, but we’re prepared if we do.”
In Louisiana, 59 percent of the train traffic leaving the state is carrying chemicals, while 21 percent of the rail traffic coming in carries crude oil, according to the most recent information available from the Association of American Railroads.
The increase in Bakken oil shipped across the country is a result of the huge boom in the oil fields of North Dakota and Canada. The amount produced outstripped the ability of pipelines to move the oil, so producers turned to railroads.
In 2008, about 9,500 carloads of crude oil were delivered by rail. By 2013, that number had jumped to 435,560 carloads, or about 300 million barrels, according to a Congressional Research Service report released in December.
It looks like 2014 saw a slight increase, because 229,798 carloads of crude oil were shipped during the first half of the year.
Exactly how much of that oil is coming through Louisiana by rail and which communities the cars pass through are kept secret. State Police are unable to release even a notification of how many rail cars come to the state on a weekly or monthly basis.
Moss said the railroads asked for a confidentiality agreement and State Police agreed to it, saying it was within the agency’s jurisdiction.
Some other states haven’t made such agreements. In Washington state, the state Department of Ecology posts information about which refineries receive crude oil by rail, how many crude oil cars pass through each county, and the status of current and proposed crude oil train facilities.
In comparison, answering the question of how much Bakken crude oil is coming via rail to Louisiana — a state with an extensive system of pipelines and waterways — is difficult.
“We are getting some, but I don’t think to the extent it’s going to the west and east,” said Richard Metcalf, director of environmental affairs with the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association.
However, the increase has prompted the construction of more rail offloading terminals in industrial corridors, including one in north Baton Rouge and several in St. James Parish.
Another clue comes from a May 2014 order from the U.S. Department of Transportation that told railroad carriers to provide each state’s emergency response commission with the number of trains moving in the state that carry at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude.
Although the State Police wouldn’t release the number of trains, it doesn’t appear that it’s growing at a fast clip. Railroads need to notify the state when there’s at least a 25 percent increase or decrease in railcars. In February, one rail carrier did notify the state that it was going to have at least a 25 percent reduction in the volume of material it was carrying, Moss said.
Causes for concern
Still, environmentalists are concerned. One worry is that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has issued a safety alert saying it appears that Bakken oil is more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.
“The big concern is the possibility of an accident,” said Paul Orr, with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
That’s not an unreasonable concern given the fiery derailments in the last few years. One of the worst occurred in July 2013 in Quebec, Canada, when a train hauling crude oil rolled down a hill and derailed, causing the deaths of 47 people, damaging the town of Lac-Mégantic and forcing 2,000 people to evacuate.
Other derailments, as reported by the Congressional Research Service, included a 400,000-gallon crude oil spill in North Dakota when a tank car ran into a previously derailed grain car train on Dec. 30, 2013. In April 2014, seventeen cars of a crude oil train in Lynchburg, Virginia, derailed, causing one of the cars to catch fire and spill 30,000 gallons of oil into the James River.
More recently, a train carrying more than 3 million gallons of crude oil from North Dakota ran into problems on Feb. 16 in Mount Carbon, West Virginia, and 27 cars of the 109-car train derailed. Many of the derailed cars caught on fire, and oil spilled into the nearby Kanawha River.
In Louisiana, two rail cars each carrying 30,000 gallons of crude oil derailed in New Orleans East at Almonaster Boulevard on March 1. There were no leaks, and the other 106 cars in the train were removed safely, but it was a reminder that despite the extensive pipeline and river access in Louisiana, rail transport of oil is growing.
Some neighborhood groups in communities along railroad lines are opposing more growth. The Coalition United Against the Middle Belt in New Orleans was formed to oppose a proposal to construct two freight tracks along the passenger rail track through the Hollygrove neighborhood. That proposal is in the planning stages, has no funding and would take at least 15 years to implement, if done at all.
“A derailment like the recent fiery West Virginia derailment would be catastrophic to life and property in densely populated New Orleans neighborhoods,” a coalition statement says.
Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said safety is paramount to the industry, and it shares concerns about the movement of crude oil.
“Railroads have dramatically improved safety over the last three decades,” he said.
During the past year, the railroad industry agreed to voluntary changes to make rail transport of crude oil safer. The changes include additional track inspections, improved brake systems for trains with 20 or more cars of crude oil and slower speeds in designated high-threat urban areas, such as Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Third in accidents
Although not a daily event, rail accidents involving hazardous materials certainly happen in the state.
Louisiana ranked third in the country for the number of hazardous-material accidents involving railroads in 2012 and 2013, coming in behind California and Texas, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s latest reporting shows. The agency doesn’t differentiate between hazardous materials and crude oil.
During the same time span, there were 199 accidents involving hazardous materials on Louisiana highways in 2012 and 252 incidents in 2013, according to the department’s reports.
Response to these accidents is led by the State Police, with support from local emergency responders and other state agencies like the Department of Environmental Quality.
There is no written manual on how a response to potential derailments will unfold, and that’s because each situation is different, said Moss, with the State Police. Responding to a train with just crude on it would be different from a case involving chlorine or any other of the chemicals that trains carry in Louisiana.
“A lot of times, when we get calls, we don’t have a whole lot of details,” Moss said, adding that troopers stay in contact with local emergency responders en route to the accident scene to get updates on injuries, evacuations and possible leaks or releases. Troopers also want to know what the cars were carrying to determine potential dangers.
“It’s very dynamic and manpower-intensive,” Moss said.
The State Police have 27 trained and hazardous material-certified technicians; each one has gone through a 40-hour certification course with a required eight hours of refresher courses every year. A number of these troopers have attended the Association of American Railroad’s training facility in Pueblo, Colorado.
“It specializes in railroad emergencies,” said State Police Technician Supervisor Johnny Sparks, who has attended the training to get hands-on experience in working with railcars and derailments.
“Our guys have a lot of experience with rail cars,” Moss said. “It’d put my guys up against anyone in the country.”
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.