“…each tank car of crude holds the energy equivalent of two million sticks of dynamite or the fuel in a wide body jetliner.”
By Russell Gold and Betsy Morris Wall Street Journal May 22, 2014
Emergency responders in Cincinnati know that trains full of crude oil have been rumbling through their city; they can see mile-long chains of black tank cars clacking across bridges over the Ohio River.
But they don’t know enough to feel prepared for the kinds of fiery accidents that have occurred over the last 10 months after oil-train derailments. How many of the 100 trains that pass through residential neighborhoods and warehouse districts daily are carrying oil, for example? And when crude is carried, is it the kind that federal investigators have linked to explosions?
“We have no idea when trains are moving through and when they aren’t,” said Thomas Lakamp, special operations chief for the Cincinnati Fire Department. “The railroads aren’t required to report to us.”
A first step toward limited disclosure takes effect next month
But secrecy still cloaks the rapidly expanding business of shipping crude by rail, leaving local officials from Portland, Ore., to Toronto struggling to obtain details about oil shipments. Driven by long-standing railroad-industry fears about stirring local protests or terrorist attacks, there is no central repository for information on oil trains or other hazardous materials. Nor are there easy-to-find maps of train routes from the oil fields of North Dakota and Texas to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico and the East and West coasts.
An emergency order from the U.S. Transportation Department in June will start requiring railroads to alert states about oil trains originating in North Dakota. But the rules, which follow accidents involving oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale in such unlikely locations as Lynchburg, Va., and Aliceville, Ala., already are coming under criticism. Some critics say the new rules are inadequate, while others worry that any disclosures will increase the likelihood of sabotage.
The dearth of information partly reflects the surging popularity of oil trains, in which roughly 100 crude-laden tankers are strung together. In 2008, it would take four days for railroads to move 100 tank cars of oil. Today, oil trains of that size depart every two hours, according to industry and government statistics. The Energy Department estimates that 1 million barrels of oil a day ride the rails across the U.S., more crude than Libya, Ecuador orQatar exports daily.
Federal safety regulations were tightened in 2009 to require railroads to conduct detailed yearly analysis to determine the safest routes for the most hazardous shipments, including radioactive materials, explosives and deadly chlorine and anhydrous ammonia. But oil isn’t included, even though each tank car of crude holds the energy equivalent of two million sticks of dynamite or the fuel in a widebody jetliner.
The rules, developed with the Department of Homeland Security, require that the railroads keep secret all their routing decisions and analysis and share them only with “appropriate persons.” Under current industry protocol, local officials can request retrospective information about the most hazardous shipments that traveled through their communities during the previous year, though the information railroads disclose is general. Regarding oil shipments, some railroads say they provide information and training to first responders when asked.
Federal regulators have complained that the energy industry has been reluctant to disclose much about the oil it ships. In the wake of accidents including one in Quebec that killed 47 people, investigations by the Canada and the U.S. found that shipments were poorly labeled and rarely tested.
The Wall Street Journal reported in February that Bakken crude is more volatile than many traditional kinds of light crude oil, carrying a high content of combustible gas. The finding subsequently was confirmed by reports from refiners and North Dakota oil producers, which found that oil from other shale formations also is more volatile and combustible than most conventional crudes from reservoirs.
Starting next month, the federal government will require railroads to tell states how many trains of Bakken oil from North Dakota are headed their way and which routes such pipelines-on-wheels will take. The rules, which apply to shipments of at least 1 million gallons, or roughly 23,810 barrels, say the information should be shared with government officials. Most oil trains include 100 or more tank cars, each of which holds about 30,000 gallons of crude.
The emergency order doesn’t require railroads to share details about the volatility or combustibility of the crude. Nor does the order require information on what kind of railcars are transporting the oil, which has been another focus of accident investigators.
It doesn’t apply to shipments of similarly volatile crude from other shale formations. Oregon’s two senators, both Democrats, urged that the rule include disclosures on any train carrying crude, not only oil from North Dakota.
Refiners said the new rules could end up increasing risks. “Does this order provide a would-be terrorist with specific route information?” asked Richard Moskowitz, general counsel for the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers lobbying group.
Some people in the railroad industry agree. “If you start setting up a system where public officials are notified of hazardous-material movements like this, you will have a lot of public conversation about things that, in our post 9/11 world, we don’t want to have public,” said a board member of a major railroad..
Railroads also want to avoid protests by student activists and environmentalists such as last August’s sit-in on tracks in Auburn, Me., seven weeks after the deadly Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, oil-train explosion.
The Association of American Railroads, an industry group, said it is trying to determine how to comply with the rule. Railroads are being asked to report exact schedules, but the vast majority of freight trains don’t follow set timetables.
Matthew K. Rose, executive chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s BNSF Railway, said the industry is developing an automated system for notifying local authorities in advance about crude-oil shipments. Until that is ready, he said, BNSF would compile the information manually.
“The cities are saying, ‘We don’t know what’s moving through our towns,’ ” Mr. Rose said. “That’s a fair question.”
Communities have been caught off guard by how quickly oil-train traffic increased, said Rick Edinger, vice chairman of the Hazardous Material Committee for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Fire departments are prepared for an accident the size of an 18-wheeler hauling gasoline, not the thousands of barrels of crude carried on oil trains, he said.
“There aren’t any fire departments that can deal with a spill or a fire of that size,” said Mr. Edinger, an assistant chief of the Chesterfield County Fire & EMS near Richmond, Va. “We don’t have the equipment or resources.”
That concern has prompted some first responders to say that in addition to information, they need training and equipment. “That would make a difference,” said Kenny Harmon, manager of the hazardous-material program at the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management. “What they are doing is a feel good that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.”
In Cincinnati, fire Chief Lakamp said that if a crude train derails and explodes, his department would evacuate nearby residents and hope that the fire didn’t move from car to car.
A study of hazardous materials moving through the region issued last year didn’t mention crude-by-rail shipments, he said. “This is relatively new to everybody.”
Lynn Cook contributed to this article.
Write to Russell Gold at firstname.lastname@example.org and Betsy Morris at email@example.com