By Rob Lee
Did you know more than 100 oil trains have gone through Linnton in the past year? And that the Port of St Helens is increasing the number of these trains from 17 a month to 34? Turns out the rail companies in both the U.S. and Canada are only too happy to keep us in the dark, which can have disastrous consequences for communities who don’t know what to prepare for because they don’t know what hazards they’re being subjected to.
In 2007 there were 5,912 train cars carrying oil in the U.S. By 2012 the number had grown to 234,000. The increase is largely attributable to the Canadian tar sands and Bakken shale oil fields in Montana and North Dakota, and there is good reason to be concerned.
The Bakken crude contains natural gas and is described as “alarmingly explosive.” Since July there have been four derailments, in Quebec, Alberta, North Dakota and Alabama, with explosions and fires. Fortunately, the three latter incidents were in mostly uninhabited locations and no one was hurt, but the first killed 47 people.
Greg Rhodes is a railroad emergency preparedness consultant, and a former CSX rail company employee. Rhodes points out, “If you have 10,15, 20 railcars on fire, it would challenge Denver, Chicago or any major fire department.” He also points out that knowing what rail traffic is passing through a community, and the risks involved, are crucial to preparedness.
A top Washington state oil spill official said the oil trains seem, “…to be shrouded in mystery.” State regulators in Washington and Oregon are kept abreast of the where, when and what they’re carrying, because they’re well regulated, but rail companies aren’t required to inform regulators where the oil trains are, nor how many.
State regulators admit that, especially in inland areas, they’re not prepared for accidents. The two states have yet to coordinate emergency plans with railroads. Rural fire departments rarely have supplies of the foam needed to fight oil fires (it’s expensive). The railroads have containment booms for oil spills stored for emergencies, but the two states don’t know where they are. In addition, the DEQ is currently cutting oil spill training for its employees for lack of funds.
In May of 2011, a log car derailed and was dragged two miles, finally hitting a car with 28,000 gallons of ethanol near Cornelius Pass Road, which ignited. Luckily, fire fighters from St Johns were able to get streams of water fixed on adjacent tank cars, keeping them from igniting also, before they had to withdraw from the intense heat of the fire, which was finally contained over three hours later. It was also lucky this didn’t happen near habitations, or huge tanks of gasoline.
A hazardous materials consultant named Fred Millar said, “Communities must force rail companies to provide information about what they’re carrying.” Talk about loaded statements.
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