Our View: Tell us when dangerous oil cars are rolling

08/09/2014 12:00 AM

08/15/2014 11:10 PM

Anyone who bothered to examine the 40 black, cylindrical railway tankers parked within 60 feet of a neighborhood in Escalon would have noticed a couple of markings. First was the red diamond-shaped placard with a flame on it; the other was the designation “DOT 111” in a grid stenciled on the tank.

Those markings are what you find on tank cars used to carry the most dangerous liquids across America – including the volatile crude oil extracted from Bakken shale deposits in North Dakota.

A BNSF official said those unattended tank cars left on one of the double tracks in Escalon for a total of seven days over several weekends from April to June were empty. Unfortunately, no one in the community of 7,000 knew enough about them to bother to ask what was in them.

“I’m not aware of what was in those cars,” said Escalon Fire Chief Rick Mello, who commands a staff of eight full-time firefighters and a volunteer force of 16. Up to 50 trains go through Escalon each day, and BNSF never notifies Escalon about what is moving along its tracks – unless asked.

That must change, because it’s entirely likely we’ll see far more of those cars in the future. And they won’t always be empty.

California’s Office of Emergency Services estimates shipments of Bakken crude will increase 25-fold by 2016 as 150 million barrels move to California’s refineries in the Bay Area, Southern California and eventually Bakersfield. Since all Bakken crude moves by rail, that could mean another 225,000 tank cars a year moving through Roseville, Sacramento, Modesto, Merced and beyond. Mother Jones magazine calls it a “virtual pipeline.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Bakken crude contains higher amounts of butane, ethane and propane than other crudes, making it too volatile for most actual pipelines. Those gases have contributed to the deaths of 47 people in the town of Lac-Megantic in Canada, where a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in July 2013 and exploded. Less dramatic derailments, some with fires, have occurred in North Dakota, Virginia and Illinois. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports 108 crude spills last year.

“When you look at the lines of travel from Canada and North Dakota, you figure if they’re headed for the Bay Area or to Bakersfield, the odds are that you’re going to see shipments going down the Valley,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, who represents north Sacramento. That’s why he authored Assembly Bill 380, which would require the railroads to notify area first-responders whenever these trains are passing through.

But the nation’s railroads are largely impervious to local concerns; they’re governed by the U.S. Department of Transportation and they’re powerful.

In July, the DOT issued proposed new rules for safe transport, including increased cargo sampling, better route analysis, a 40 mph speed limit on trains labeled “high-hazard flammable,” and switching to the new, safer DOT 111 cars after Oct. 1, 2015. The new cars have double steel walls, better closures and heavier carriages. Currently, they make up about a third of the nation’s tanker fleet.

California’s Office of Emergency Services has issued 12 recommendations, ranging from allowing better data collection to phasing out those old tank cars to better training for first-responders.

Laudably, the railroads are already doing most of these things. Since the mid-1990s, BNSF has offered – at no charge – training for handling spilled hazardous materials and dealing with emergencies. One of Escalon’s eight full-time firefighters was trained at virtually no cost to the city. BNSF said they would even do on-site training for departments. But not every fire department has taken the courses. A BNSF spokeswoman said Sacramento sent only one firefighter to the most recent three-day training on dealing with hazardous materials, including Bakken crude.

The federal DOT issued an emergency order in May to require all carriers to inform first responders about crude oil being shipped through their towns and for the immediate development of plans to handle oil spills. Unfortunately, it contains a discomforting criteria: the order applies only to trains carrying 1 million gallons of Bakken crude, or roughly 35 tank cars. And to reach DOT’s definition of a “high-hazard flammable train,” a train must have 20 tank cars.

But a Bakken explosion in Virginia blew one tank car an estimated 5,500 feet; a photograph of another explosion showed a fireball rising 700 feet from a single car. Our first responders ought to know when even one car carrying such material is coming through.

Dickinson’s bill would make notification available on a real-time basis, without having to ask. His goal, said Dickinson, is to “give first responders better information on how to respond. The techniques and materials used in dealing with different chemicals, or even different types of oil, vary widely. ‘I know I’m dealing with oil, but what kind of oil?’ My bill is aimed at getting better, more timely, more complete information to responding agencies.”

But his bill mirrors federal orders on the size of the train; our first responders need to know when any hazardous shipment is moving through.

The incredible expansion of America’s oil resources is creating many positives – from more jobs to less dependence on foreign oil. But it’s happening so fast that we’re devising the safety aspects as we roll along this virtual pipeline from North Dakota to California in the west and to New Jersey in the east. Accidents are happening along the way. Federal rules don’t go nearly far enough to protect public safety in this new world. Dickinson’s bill and the state OES recommendations would help, but we need a broader dialogue. As Dickinson said, “we know we’re going to have derailments, no matter how careful people try to be.”

That’s why first-responders such as Escalon’s Chief Mello must “prepare for anything, any day.” Knowing what’s coming gives us a head start.

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

The Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service