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First Responders Not Prepared for Oil Train Explosions Despite Emergency Order

Notwithstanding an emergency order DOT issued on May 7 that railroads must provide cities oil train information, secrecy continues to cloak the transport of hazardous oil shipments leaving first responders ill-prepared to handle fiery explosions.
May 24, 2014, 9am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"Starting next month, the federal government will require railroads to tell states how many trains of Bakken oil from North Dakota are headed their way and which routes such pipelines-on-wheels will take," write Russell Gold and Betsy Morris on the controversial, and growing crude-by-rail shipments.

The Energy Department estimates that 1 million barrels of oil a day ride the rails across the U.S., more crude than Libya, Ecuador or Qatar exports daily.

It's what the order doesn't address that have many first responders worried. It "doesn't require railroads to share details about the volatility or combustibility of the crude. Nor does the order require information on what kind of railcars are transporting the oil, which has been another focus of accident investigators," write Gold and Morris.

A non-binding safety advisory on the tank cars used to transport the crude was issued with the emergency order, noted here earlier. Canada's recent emergency binding measure addressed the railcars, and give oil companies three years to stop using them.

A major part of the problem is that historically crude oil was not considered a hazardous material - it simply was not likely to catch fire due to its low volatility. That notion was shattered last July in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, with the loss of 47 lives and the total destruction of the downtown. 

If a fire department thinks they can handle an explosion on an oil train, which usually consists of about 100 oil tank cars, each carrying 30,000 gallons of crude, they are misinformed, states Rick Edinger, vice chairman of the Hazardous Material Committee for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. "Fire departments are prepared for an accident the size of an 18-wheeler hauling gasoline, not the thousands of barrels of crude carried on oil trains, he said."

There aren't any fire departments that can deal with a spill or a fire of that size," said Mr. Edinger, an assistant chief of the Chesterfield County Fire & EMS near Richmond, Va. "We don't have the equipment or resources.

In addition to more information, training and equipment would make a difference, according to some responders.

Full Story:
Published on Friday, May 23, 2014 in The Wall Street Journal
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