BOB BECK: When a crude oil train derailed and exploded in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia this week, it wasn’t the first or even the second time that’s happened this year. As growing domestic production of oil strains pipeline capacity, railroads have been picking up the slack. Crude-by-rail, as it’s known, has grown 500 percent since 2011. But a recent string of accidents has led to concern about its safety. Wyoming Public Radio energy reporter Stephanie Joyce joins us now to talk about how those concerns are playing out in Wyoming, and what’s being done about them.
And Stephanie, first off, thank you for joining me. And here’s a simple question for you: why are these trains exploding?
STEPHANIE JOYCE: That’s a really good question, Bob. And as I understand it, the answer is at least two-part. If you’ll indulge me, maybe I can start with a little bit of history…
The accident that really brought everyone’s attention to this issue happened last July in Lac Megantic, Quebec. And if you remember that incident, an improperly-set brake allowed a train carrying Bakken crude oil to roll down a hill into the town, where it derailed and exploded, killing 47 people and basically obliterating the town center. Before that accident, conventional wisdom had said crude oil doesn’t explode. There was a lot of back and forth afterwards about what was actually in the rail cars. But then a couple months later, there was another derailment and explosion that resulted in the evacuation of Casselton, North Dakota. And after that accident, regulators came out with a warning that the chemical composition of Bakken crude oil might make it more flammable. It’s worth noting that the accident in Lynchburg this week also involved Bakken oil. So, that’s the oil part.
But Bob, there’s also the container part. Most of the crude oil is being transported in rail cars that are known as DOT-111s. And as one railroader put it to me, they’re fine for moving soybean oil, but not highly volatile crude oil. They have really thin walls, they puncture easily. Canadian regulators have said without modifying their design, they’re really not suitable for hazardous materials transport. US regulators have no said that. But they’re what’s available, and there’s been a lot of resistance, particularly by the oil industry, who would who ends up footing the bill, for overhauling them and replacing them.
So, in short: more Bakken crude and inadequate rail cars, together, seem to be the problem when it comes to explosions.
BECK: So, there’s more crude oil overall moving by rail across the country. How much of that is moving through Wyoming?
JOYCE: Well, that’s a surprisingly hard question to answer. Crude oil is definitely being shipped through Wyoming. But where it’s coming from and how much of it there is… that’s a little trickier to answer. The national statistics are pretty easy to come by, but it’s pretty hard to get state-specific data.
I’ve asked the railroads directly, and depending on who I’m talking to, they tell me one of two things: either they say they don’t keep track or they say they can’t share that information.
But recently, I was able to get ahold of the annual reports the railroads file with the state. And in those reports, they break down what’s being shipped through Wyoming by commodity. One of those categories is “crude oil, natural gas and natural gasoline.” And there’s no way to know what percentage each of those represents, but when I looked at the national statistics, which are broken down a little bit further, there’s very little natural gas or natural gasoline being shipped by rail. So nationally, that category basically just means crude oil. If that’s what it means at the state level -- and again, I couldn’t get the railroads to confirm this -- then crude oil shipment in Wyoming is very much following the national trend. Last year, 16,400 rail cars of “crude oil, natural gas and natural gasoline” came through Wyoming, compared to 10,000 the year before, and even fewer in 2011.
Anecdotally, people who pay attention to these things do confirm that it’s up. James Martin is Cheyenne’s fire chief, and he’s also in charge of one of the state’s Regional Emergency Response Teams. And he says all you have to do is look at the cars.
JAMES MARTIN: You know, if you go down and look at the railyards and watch the cars, and have an idea about the placarding, you start looking, you’re going to see there’s more and more coming through.
BECK: And so is Chief Martin worried about this increase? And just as a quick follow-up: are he and other emergency responders doing anything to prepare for a derailment?
JOYCE: I wouldn’t say worried, but definitely aware. As he put it, when you see Lac Megantic or Casselton on TV, you think, “hmm… maybe I should dust off those response plans for this kind of incident.”
To that end, he says his team has been training on rail response, and is planning a crude oil-specific training for the near future in conjunction with the railways. Other teams across the state are doing similar trainings. BNSF says it held a training in Gillette in April, and has one scheduled for Worland in September. It seems like both the emergency response community and the railroads are paying attention. So I asked Chief Martin whether he thinks right now, Wyoming emergency responders would be prepared to deal with the kind of derailment and explosion that we saw in Lynchburg this week… he says: yeah.
MARTIN: We are trying to preplan and work and get ahead of this, so if something does happen, we do have contingency plans in place.
BECK: What about prevention? Making sure these accidents don’t happen in the first place?
JOYCE: Yeah, Bob, that’s a really excellent point, and I think most people would say it’s a problem that needs to be tackled from a couple of different angles. Wyoming doesn’t have it’s own railroad regulatory agency -- or really even anyone who really works directly with the railroads on safety issues. So any changes would have to be at the federal level, for the most part. But I did speak with Representative Stan Blake of Green River, who in addition to being a legislator, actually works for Union Pacific -- although I should add that he stressed that he is in no way speaking on behalf of the company. He thinks there are basically two problems. The first one will have to be dealt with by the feds and industry, and that’s modifying or switching out those DOT-111 cars for something a bit sturdier. But Blake also thinks the state can play a role.
STAN BLAKE: You just have to be ever vigilant in keeping these tracks up. Maybe Wyoming should look into getting a rail guy, somebody who could do some inspections.
It’s worth noting that derailments aren’t just a problem with the track. In Lac Megantic, it human error. In Casselton, the crude train actually ran into another train, although that train had derailed because of problems with the track.
Another thing, that Rep. Blake didn’t bring up, but that others have, is better labeling. There’s been a lot of criticism of the oil industry for inaccurate labeling of crude, especially coming out of the Bakken. The federal agency in charge of the railroads has issued an emergency order that mandates additional testing, but it’s not clear how much of that is actually being done.
Slower speed limits and routing the trains around communities have also been proposed at federal level but many people have pointed out the railroad and oil lobbies are very strong in Washington… so whether those changes are actually going to be implemented is another question.
BECK: So, does it seem like we’re bound to see more of these accidents in the future?
JOYCE: Well, it’s always dangerous to predict the future, but given the frequency of derailments in the recent past, I would say the odds are high. I can say for sure that here in Wyoming, we’re likely to see more crude trains as rail loading facilities continue popping up around the state. Those are the facilities that take oil from pipelines and load it onto trains. By my count, there are currently eight, mostly in the Powder River Basin, but also in Uinta County, although there could be more. It doesn’t seem like anyone has a complete list….
Grassroots pressure does seem to be building though… Rep. Blake has said he’s going to raise the issue with the transportation committee, which he sits on. The Powder River Basin Resource Council is getting a group together to look at the problem and what can be done about it. And there’s talk in Ft. Laramie, where one of those rail-loading facilities is located, of getting together a safety commission of communities along the track. So, I think we can look forward to a lot more discussion of this issue in the near future.
BECK: Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce. Thank you.
JOYCE: Thank you, Bob.