REGIONAL- The phenomenal growth in the North American energy sector has brought the prospect of energy independence to the United States for the first time in decades.
But it has also brought with it an alarming increase in the number of catastrophic rail accidents, as huge volumes of highly flammable crude oil and ethanol are moving up and down the nation’s rail lines today, including the heavily-traveled Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific line in St. Louis County.
The DWP, operated by Canadian National, has a historically good safety record compared to many railroads, and the company made substantial upgrades to the track near Orr as recently as this spring. But accidents, including derailments, are inevitable. Over the past ten years, the DWP has reported at least nine derailments, including one as recently as last October, when several cars left the tracks just north of the international bridge at International Falls, resulting in a spill of hydrogen peroxide.
While derailments are inherently dangerous, the stakes are higher than ever when trains are hauling so much flammable crude. Those risks were all too apparent in the tragic accident in the small town of Lac-Magentic, Quebec, Canada, where a major derailment of a train carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken field, incinerated part of the town, leaving 47 people dead. And last December, residents of Cassleton, N.D., just west of Fargo narrowly escaped a similar disaster when 400,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil spilled in a derailment just outside of town, creating a massive explosion and fire.
While the DWP used to be known as a major conduit for Canadian lumber into the U.S., these days there are fewer wood products and a whole lot more crude oil on the tracks. In 2013, the DWP line carried nearly 19,000 train carloads of crude oil alone, an average of 52 per day. Indeed, the DWP shipped more crude oil than any other dangerous product last year, about 570 million gallons. Yet the line hauls many other flammable liquids, including ethanol, gasoline, and thousands of carloads of molten sulfur, another highly flammable substance. All together, well over 100 carloads of highly flammable materials move up and down the DWP line each day, passing right through the communities of Cook, Orr and Virginia.
The rise in crude oil shipments on the DWP line mirror the trends across the U.S. and Canada, where crude oil shipments by rail have increased from just 9,500 carloads nationwide in 2008 to a staggering 434,000 carloads in 2013. Rail accidents involving all that crude have risen at much the same rate— from just one accident in 2009 to 118 last year. And 2014, which has seen 70 accidents as of mid-May, is on a pace to shatter 2013’s record pace of accidents involving crude oil.
The sharp rise in rail accidents involving crude oil has sparked concern nationwide. Here in Minnesota, the Legislature approved tougher safety rules for railroads in May, and those new regulations went into effect July 1. The new rules require that companies submit disaster prevention plans to the state, increases the number of safety inspections, and requires railroads to provide emergency response training every three years to every fire department located along oil train routes. In addition, companies must file emergency response plans and deploy enough equipment and staff to ensure that spills or leaks can be cleaned up as quickly as possible.
In particular, regulators and political leaders are concerned about the safety record of a particular tanker, known as a DOT-111, which has been involved in most of the recent catastrophic spills.
CN, like most railroads, depends largely on its fleet of DOT-111 tankers to haul hazardous and flammable materials.
The tankers, which one rail safety advocate compared to the recalled Ford Pinto, have a long history of problems. An Associated Press analysis of 20 years’ worth of federal rail accident data found that ethanol tankers have been breached in at least 40 serious accidents since 2000. In the previous decade, there were just two breaches.
Rail safety advocates say the tankers’ steel shell is too thin to resist puncture in accidents. And unloading valves and other exposed fittings on the tops of the tankers can also break during rollovers.
Although CN spokesman Patrick Waldron could not say how many of the tankers were being used, he acknowledged that the DOT-111 tankers were in use by the railroad. “This is an industry issue,” he said, adding that CN supports efforts to upgrade the safety of tanker cars.
The DOT-111 tanker was originally designed in the 1960s and its safety flaws have been well known at least since the 1990s. A new design is safer, but the older tankers still vastly outnumber the newer ones on rail lines throughout the country. According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), there are 335,000 tank cars overall in active use across the nation. Of those, 228,000 are the older version of the DOT-111, and roughly 92,000 of those are used to move flammable liquids, such as crude and ethanol. Only about 14,000 of those tank cars currently hauling flammable liquids are built to the latest industry safety standards.
Meanwhile, CN has taken some steps on its own to improve safety. The railroad has encouraged customers to acquire tank cars that meet higher safety standards and begun to phase out its small fleet of approximately 118 legacy DOT-111 tank cars used to transport diesel fuel for its locomotives to yard terminals, Waldron said.
In addition, CN has been reaching out to municipalities along its North American rail network to review its safety practices, share relevant information on hazardous materials traffic, and discuss emergency planning and training. Railroad officials recently held such a meeting with Cook emergency personnel.
The safety of the tankers themselves is not the only concern, however. The crude oil from the Bakken oil field, located in western N. D., has proven to be more flammable than other types of crude.
In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring that state crisis managers be notified whenever large shipments of Bakken crude are being shipped by rail. The agency has also issued a recommendation to railroads that they not ship Bakken crude oil in older DOT-111s.
While local emergency responders in Cook and Orr would likely be the first line of defense in the event of a major rail accident in one of those communities, St. Louis County would also have a major role to play in any response.
Steve Steblay, supervising deputy for emergency management for St. Louis County, said the risks associated with the rail transport of flammable materials is a rising concern. “We’re in the process of setting up protocols and procedures to handle such emergencies,” he said, adding that the department is updated by the railroads on the dangerous materials and quantity of materials being shipped on rail lines in the county.
At the same time, emergency responders in the area have also been paying more attention to the issue. CN officials recently met with emergency responders in Cook to discuss safety concerns, and the company is planning additional trainings with local officials in the weeks and months to come.
“CN’s commitment to running a safe railway is evidenced by the fact that 99.98 percent of CN movements of dangerous goods arrive at their destination without a release caused by accident,” said Waldron, who added the company annually invests more than $1 billion to maintain network safety and integrity, with a focus on employee training and safety awareness, analysis of accidents to determine their cause and how they could be avoided, and technical innovation.
Waldron said those efforts have been redoubled in the wake of the Lac-Megantic accident last July involving a small regional railroad. Steps taken by CN include:
‰Investing $10 million to acquire additional monitoring equipment to enhance the railroad’s already strong technological base for early detection of defects and to mitigate the severity of accidents.
‰ Application of the U.S. “OT-55key train policy” to trains hauling highly-flammable liquids such as ethanol and crude oil. The policy includes safety measures on train dispatching, track inspection and restrictions on train speeds.
‰ Conducting corridor risk assessments, examining rail line proximity to urban population and associated infrastructure, environmentally sensitive areas and railway operating practices to develop enhanced safety processes for trains transporting dangerous goods.