Mont. Firefighters Prepare For Crude Oil Rail Disaster

July 29--Chances of a train derailment involving crude oil are minimal. But as the quantities of tank cars coming from North Dakota increase, so does the potential risk, Libby Volunteer Fire Department assistant chief Steve Lauer said.

Last week, The Western News reported that as many as 12-16 trains carrying crude oil travel through Lincoln County each week and that emergency crews were aware of this and revising emergency management plans accordingly.

As one of the first emergency personnel to be attending any catastrophic event regarding a train derailment, Lauer and firefighter Scott Beagle went to Colorado from July 13 to 17 to a Security and Emergency Response Training Center to get instruction on the chemical and physical properties of the oil, detection and monitoring, as well as suppression tactics.

Firefighters from across the U.S. participated in the training that took place on a 52-square mile facility, paid for primarily by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF), using actual railroad tank cars, Lauer said.

Lauer emphasized the possibility of derailment and a resulting catastrophe was not high, but emergency services in Lincoln County were still taking the scenario very seriously.

"As long as we (understand) the risk and how to deal with it, then we are that much better prepared -- whether that is one or 10 trains (coming through the county)," Lauer said.

"Regardless of how many, we are prepared to deal with a derailment."

Emergency crews were being trained to identify what a train is carrying if it derailed, and how to best manage the scenario.

"It could be as simple as a car off the tracks or it could be a catastrophe," Lauer said. "In some cases you wouldn't have to do anything. If there was a leak you would identify possible ignition sources. If there was a fire we would look if it was a place where the fire could be accessed. We would look to see if it was leaking into the river, or if it was in a remote location."

Lincoln County was now in a state of pre-planning for every possible scenario, Lauer said. This also meant knowing what access there would be to each railroad mile marker in Lincoln County.

Lauer said he would be making a trip out to each mile marker in the next few weeks.

Another part of the pre-planning was getting access to more A-FFF, or Aqueous Film Forming Foams, used to suppress a fire from a crude oil leak.

Further training for Lincoln County fire crews on train derailment was being planned next month, Lauer said.

Vic White, Lincoln County Emergency Service Management Director, said his team is in the middle of updating the Lincoln County Emergency Operations Plan that had last had an overall revision in 2011.

The lead agency in the event of a rail accident was fire, sheriff and local law enforcement and it was timely for the BNSF to be holding emergency management workshops with these groups, including the U.S. Forest Service, since November 2013, White said.

This was especially important because a derailment in Lincoln County also had the potential for an environmental disaster, as the rails traveled along both the Fisher River and the Kootenai River.

White said it wasn't just crude oil emergency crews were prepared to handle.

"Bakken oil is just one of the hazards that pass through here," White said.

Lauer said the most common substance he was aware of being transported through Lincoln County was propane, petroleum products, and chlorine.

According to a May congressional research document "U.S. Rail Transportation of Crude Oil: Background and issues for Congress" U.S. freight railroads are estimated to have carried 434,000 carloads -- roughly 300 million barrels -- of crude oil in 2013 compared to 9,500 carloads in 2008.

In 2014, 650,000 carloads of crude oil are expected to be carried, the document states. Legislation introduced in Congress following the 2013 Lac Megantic disaster that killed nearly 50 people would require at least two crew members aboard all trains. Policy makers are also looking at changes involving tank car design and preferred routes for transporting oil by rail in the reauthorization of the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act.

Railroads were a viable alternative to pipeline transportation largely because they offered more flexibility as the U.S. railroad network is more extensive than the oil pipeline network, the report states. While there are about 57,000 miles of crude oil pipeline in the U.S., there are nearly 140,000 miles of railroad.

Copyright 2014 - The Western News, Libby, Mont.