The small black pager that Missoula Fire Department Battalion Chief Steve Paske wears on his right hip vibrated. At the same time, a high-pitched tone pierced the air in Fire Station I. The alerts advised Paske that a Montana Rail Link train was on fire near Scott Street.
"It came in as a locomotive that was smoking and it had a fire on the top of it," Paske says.
Two fire engines headed to the scene. Paske hopped into a red department command vehicle and did the same. Another advisory came as he drove: The dispatcher said the train carried Bakken oil.
The operator didn't say what was on fire. It could have been an engine component or the locomotive's cargo. The latter, as has become clear in a series of accidents across North America this past year, would pose a far more serious threat.
As Paske drove toward the fire, he saw the locomotive parked behind the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot downtown, not at Scott Street as he was initially informed. Light-colored smoke billowed out of the orange locomotive. Paske, who serves as program manager of MFD's Hazmat Team and is a 25-year-department veteran, knew that oil fires produce dark smoke. He quickly concluded the situation was not serious.
Turns out, a shorted out braking modular atop the locomotive's engine sparked the April 20 blaze. Paske says the fire was contained inside a steel box, far from the train's cargo. Nobody got hurt. The incident barely drew headlines. It did, however, call attention to the fact that Bakken oil is increasingly being shipped through Missoula.
MRL says three locomotives carrying roughly 100 cars of Bakken oil each made their way through Missoula last week alone. As of June 9, MRL had transported 23 similar shipments through Missoula this year. At the beginning of June, Bakken oil traffic in 2014 had already tripled over 2013, when MRL says it shipped all of eight comparable loads.
The spike in traffic reflects a trend across North America. In 2008, train operators moved roughly 10,000 carloads of crude. Last year, that number jumped to 434,000. Much of the product is coming from what's called the Bakken Shale in the Williston Basin, deep underground reservoirs of oil that stretch across North Dakota, Canada and Montana. The hydrocarbon-rich basin has ranked North Dakota as the second highest oil-producing state, next to Texas.
As Bakken oil shipments increase, so do the accidents. According to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, more crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents last year than during the nearly four decades prior.
As evidenced by a series of high-profile incidents, those spills present a deadly threat to communities along heavily traveled rail lines. In July, a Bakken train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and sparked a series of explosions that killed 47 people and fires that burned for more than a day. Since November, a sequence of spills in Aliceville, Ala., Casselton, N.D., and, most recently, in Lynchburg, Va., prompted federal transportation officials to issue increasingly dire warnings. On May 7, just after the Lynchburg derailment set the James River on fire and threatened the area's drinking water source, the U.S. Department of Transportation delivered its strongest advisory yet, saying the accidents exhibited "a pattern of releases and fires" that "constitute an imminent hazard."
Those who've squared off with Bakken oil fire say it's nearly impossible to fight. Tanker cars explode. Water doesn't extinguish it, nor is the firefighting foam designed to tackle such blazes a sure bet. When the Bakken train fire erupted in Casselton last winter, the foam was frozen by the time it arrived to the scene.
The crashes have prompted railroads to slow down when moving through populated areas. In addition, as of June 7, railroad operators are being required for the first time to tell state officials what routes they're using to transport Bakken oil. The White House, meanwhile, is reviewing a proposed regulatory crackdown, potentially mandating the tankers that carry Bakken crude be reinforced to better withstand derailments.
Absent the White House's new regulations, first responders along North American railroads are largely left with the status quo—the potential of putting out tanker cars that have been proven to breech in accidents involving highly flammable cargo.
Missoula Fire Chief Jason Diehl is aware of Bakken oil's challenges. He says his crew is as prepared as they can be. They have management plans in place should an oil fire arise. That said, he's under no illusions. If a derailment similar to what happened in Quebec or Casselton occurred in downtown Missoula, he says, "That would be catastrophic."
At 11 p.m. on July 5, 2013, an engineer operating a 72-car freight train traveling from North Dakota to a New Brunswick oil refinery parked the locomotive on the main line roughly eight miles outside Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. He left the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train engine idling, set a series of brakes and left it there unattended. Forty minutes later, a nearby resident called emergency personnel to report the locomotive was on fire.
According to information compiled by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Association, the local fire department and railroad representatives responded. They shut down the engine and extinguished the fire, again leaving the Bakken oil train unattended on the track.
Investigators say a malfunctioning piston in the diesel engine sparked the first small blaze, but they're still working to piece together what happened next. Roughly an hour after emergency personnel attended to the piston fire and left the scene, the 10,000-pound train started to roll down the track toward Lac-Mégantic. Unmoored and without an engineer, it careened, at speeds of up to 64 miles per hour, the 7.4 miles to Lac-Mégantic.
Of the 72 cars, 63 derailed. At least 60 breached, releasing some 1.6 million gallons of crude. Tankers exploded one by one, sending fireballs into the air that could be seen for miles around.
The Musi Café in downtown Lac-Mégantic was crowded that night with celebrants dancing to live music. Many of the 47 people who died were inside the café when the train derailed and flames engulfed the establishment. Those on the patio survived. The fire burned until July 7 and destroyed 40 buildings, decimating much of downtown Lac-Mégantic.
Dave Rogness followed the news coming out of Lac-Mégantic from his office in North Dakota. The articles documented flaming oil that ran into sewers, then reemerged through manhole covers that popped in the streets.
"I go, 'Oh my God, that sounds like Armageddon,'" says Rogness, who serves as Cass County's emergency manager. "That got my attention real quick."
Rogness is responsible for planning for the worst in North Dakota's most populated county. Because roughly 120 Bakken oil trains move through Cass County daily, Rogness couldn't help but worry that what happened in Lac-Mégantic could occur closer to home.
He quickly crafted a plan for emergency responders and by summer's end, every Cass County fire department had practiced a Bakken train fire scenario three different times. The drills still didn't prepare Casselton Fire Chief Tim McLean for the volatility of Bakken oil.
"We had no idea it was that flammable," McLean says.
On Dec. 30, a 106-car Bakken train collided with a derailed soybean train just outside of Casselton, sending 19 oil cars tumbling off the rails. McLean was among the first on scene. He witnessed the sequence of explosions that ensued as downed tankers developed a "heat tear."
"They just split open," McLean says.
McLean called Rogness at home in Fargo, some 20 miles east of the accident, to advise him of the situation. When Rogness asked what was wrong, McLean told him to look out his window. Even from Fargo, Rogness saw the smoke.
"My first impression was, Is this what Hiroshima looked like when they dropped the bomb?" Rogness says. "I mean, it was that dramatic."
The smoke carried small balls of tar that landed as far as eight miles from the crash. Toxic smoke prompted officials to recommend those living within three miles of the derailment to evacuate.
The fire burned for 24 hours. First responders had no way to get close enough to even contemplate putting out the blaze, McLean says. Even if the firefighting foam provided by Burlington Nortern Santa Fe had not frozen in North Dakota's subzero temperatures, he says it probably wouldn't have done much good.
Still, McLean says Cass County got lucky. The nearest structure was a quarter mile away. No property was threatened and nobody got hurt. Had the incident occurred in Casselton, McLean says the story would have been very different.
"If it would have happened in town, yeah, it would have been a really big deal," he says.
On Mon., June 9, a line of black tankers inch along the railroad tracks near Waverly and Phillips streets in Missoula. The train pushes past a woman walking her dog and, to the north, White Pine Park, where young men play soccer in the afternoon sun.
The 108 black tanker cars moving west toward Reserve Street are carrying petroleum. A typical carload of crude contains around 30,000 gallons. Red placards on each of the tankers display the number 1267, a hazardous material code that indicates there's oil inside. Without knowledge of such codes, a layperson likely wouldn't know the flammable cargo is being moved through Missoula.
The black tankers are what the industry refers to as "DOT specification 111A," cars that have troubled federal regulators for decades. In 1991, the National Transportation Safety Board warned, "The inadequacy of the protection provided by DOT-111A tank cars for certain products has been evident for many years." Specifically, the board said tanker shells are too thin and easily puncture on impact. DOT-111 valve handles also break during collisions, allowing for leaks.
In the 1991 safety warning, the NTSB pointed to an accident in Helena two years earlier in which DOT-111s full of hydrogen peroxide, acetone and isopropyl alcohol breached, triggering explosions that sent tanker car fragments flying for a half mile. A fire ensued and 3,500 people were forced to evacuate. Two were injured. The NTSB reports damage and cleanup costs from the Helena accident ran more than $6 million.
Despite the NTSB's 1991 advisory, DOT-111s continued transporting hazardous materials. A DOT-111 breach during a 1992 derailment outside Superior, Wisc., leaked benzene, which is used in the production of plastic and rubber, into the Nemadji River. After the incident, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources documented 16 different species of wild animal dead in the surrounding area.
Federal transportation officials went on to document catastrophic releases of hazardous materials resulting from DOT-111 derailments in 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2011.
"Everybody's known for over 20 years that those cars are unsafe to haul certain commodities. They were designed to haul things like corn syrup. They're not designed to haul explosives," says Minnesota attorney William Jungbauer, a railroad litigation specialist who has squared off against the industry for 36 years.
Jungbauer's firm represented victims of a 2002 rail spill of anhydrous ammonia in Minot, N.D., that killed one and left dozens hospitalized, and he testified before Congress about rail safety in 2007. While Jungbauer typically battles railroad companies in court, he says there's plenty of blame to go around for the recent accidents.
Railroad companies, such as Montana Rail Link and BNSF, don't own the tanker cars. Typically, energy companies own or lease them, meaning it's the petroleum industry that will be mandated to foot the bill of future tanker car upgrades. Therefore, Jungbauer sees energy industry influence as responsible for the fact that DOT-111s continue to transport dangerous materials.
"The reason the (Federal Railroad Administration) won't change the rules," Jungbauer says, "is there's too damn much political money and muscle in and around Washington, D.C., to prevent it from happening."
For their part, petroleum companies say they're being unfairly targeted. The tankers wouldn't be a problem, they say, if they remained on the tracks. And track maintenance and upgrades, of course, are the responsibility of the railroads.
The American Petroleum Institute trade organization noted in a December filing to regulators that DOT-111s "are safe under normal operating conditions." The filing went on to say that derailments stem from failings with rail infrastructure and individual rail employees. "The best way to limit the impact of a derailment is to prevent a derailment in the first place," API argued.
In April, API representative Lee Johnson told the NTSB that the industry isn't wholly opposed to reinforcing the tankers, but it would like to see more information first. "We think that they should be analyzed and there should be a good study and database decision-making on what to do with those cars," Johnson said.
While the debate continues over phasing out old tankers, Jungbauer says railroad safety measures are being overlooked. For instance, even as railroad operators profit off the astronomical increase in Bakken oil shipments, he says they're shirking on repairs and ignoring safety violations to keep traffic moving. "Anything that slows down the moving of those trains is a potential problem," Jungbauer says.
In response to questions about safety, Montana Rail Link contends it consistently inspects its tracks and that each train is scrutinized daily. MRL says further that between 1980 and 2007, 99.98 percent of hazmat shipments arrived safely at their destination. MRL spokesperson Lynda Frost, meanwhile, says railroads are "common carriers," meaning federal law requires them to carry whatever comes their way.
As for BNSF, which operates the Hi-Line track through northern Montana, spokesman Matt Jones says the company is doing everything it can to facilitate safe shipments. In 2014, BNSF will invest $5 billion in capital and infrastructure improvements, he adds.
The Association of American Railroads, meanwhile, is keeping the focus on tanker standards. More than a year before Lac-Mégantic, the AAR formally asked federal regulators to mandate DOT-111s be manufactured with a thicker, more puncture-resistant shell, additional shields at the ends of cars, and valves that don't fail on impact.
Federal regulators did not adopt AAR's 2011 proposal. Absent federal intervention, the railroad operators independently issued more stringent standards for cars using their rails. The AAR now requires tankers constructed after 2011 transporting Bakken oil or ethanol on member railroad lines be made of thicker material and have "head shields" to further insulate cars from impact.
The rail industry is also pressing federal regulators to adopt new tanker standards that go beyond the 2011 upgrades. As BNSF spokesman Jones tells the Independent, "BNSF and the industry also requested that the DOT-111 be aggressively phased out."
Despite railroad advocacy, roughly 92,000 old DOT-111s are still being used to transport hazardous materials such as Bakken oil; that's about 70 percent of all cars used to move flammable liquids.
In light of those numbers and the ongoing regulatory paralysis, Jungbauer isn't optimistic that transportation officials will act to fix the problem.
"There will be more death," he says. "There will be more explosions."
At 4:50 a.m. on June 18, 2006, five ethanol tank cars derailed at the Montana Rail Link switching yard in Missoula, spilling 13,000 gallons of ethanol. The Federal Railroad Administration determined the accident, in which one DOT-111 tanker car released its cargo, was caused by a broken rail.
MRL didn't notice the leak for 38 minutes. Two hours later, Phillips Street residents were advised to evacuate.
Chris Lounsbury from the Missoula County Office of Emergency Management was second in command of the agency in 2006. Now agency director, Lounsbury says the county is better equipped to handle a scenario like what happened in 2006. For example, roughly two years ago local officials began meeting quarterly with MRL to discuss railroad company operations, including safety plans. By the end of the year, Missoula County also aims to have technology in place to provide emergency information to individual mobile phone users. (As it stands, only locals with landlines and those who have entered their cellphone numbers into the county's online emergency advisory system would receive notice by phone of an evacuation order.)
In the case of a serious hazmat spill along the rail route, Lounsbury says law enforcement would also go door-to-door with a safety advisory. He acknowledges that would take time.
"It's really hard to say, 'Well, it would take 15 minutes to evacuate this area or 20 minutes,'" Lounsbury says. "There's so many variables depending on time of day, how many people are home and all of those things."
While the 2006 ethanol spill highlights challenges communicating emergencies with the public, it also calls attention to the fact that Bakken oil isn't the only hazardous material shipped by rail through Missoula County.
In 2012, ethanol was the most frequently transported hazardous material moved by locomotives nationally. Between 2005 and 2011, there was a 441-percent increase in ethanol traffic by railroad. The spike resulted from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2005 renewable fuel standard, which requires gasoline manufacturers increasingly blend products such as ethanol into fuel. Ethanol is made with fermented plant matter, such as corn. It's highly volatile and commonly transported in DOT-111s.
Other products transported locally in DOT-111s include diesel fuel and gasoline, which are on par with Bakken oil when it comes to flammability.
On a recent Monday afternoon on Raser Drive in Missoula, strings of DOT-111s filled with gasoline and diesel lined the railyard across the street from the Phillips 66 Refined Products Terminal. The Phillips 66 facility marks an unloading and a transfer point for the Yellowstone Pipeline, which carries fuel from Billings refineries and, after a brief interruption between Missoula and Thompson Falls, continues on to Moses Lake, Wash.
The pipeline is emptied in Missoula because a series of leaks on the Flathead Indian Reservation, including one that in 1993 spilled 10,000 gallons of jet fuel in Camas Creek, prompted the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to pull the Yellowstone's easement in 1996.
Absent the easement, shippers have for years removed fuel from the pipeline at Missoula and then transported it by train through the reservation and north to Paradise, Plains and Thompson Falls, where it is again put in the Yellowstone.
Phillips 66 spokesman Michael Barnes refused to tell the Independent how many trains come out of the terminal daily. "It is our company's practice not to share specific volumes of our individual facilities," he wrote in an email. When asked if the company is confident using DOT-111 tanker cars, Barnes pointed to existing federal regulations. "The Missoula Terminal handles refined products such as gasoline and diesel," Barnes wrote. "These products are safely shipped in rail cars that meet current regulatory standards."
While admitted problems exist, shipments of Bakken oil and other hazardous materials continue, full steam ahead. The Congressional Research Service estimates that 650,000 carloads of crude oil will be transported by rail this year, up nearly 50 percent from 2013. Much of that oil is coming out of the Williston Basin, in which, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, 7.4 billion barrels of oil remained as of last year.
Eager to get the oil to market, the Tesoro Refining & Marketing Company last year proposed building a 360,000 barrel-per-day oil transfer facility in Vancouver, Wash. If Washington state regulators authorize it, the transfer facility would be the largest in the Northwest. Tesoro's facility stands to increase petroleum shipments through Montana by five trains per day, according to research compiled by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, a coalition of environmental advocacy groups.
Tesoro's plans have drawn criticism, most notably from the Vancouver City Council, which, on June 2, passed a resolution opposing the terminal and any other project that would increase petroleum shipments by rail. When citing its rationale for passing the resolution, the council noted a January 2014 warning from the NTSB: "Because there is no mandate for railroads to develop comprehensive plans or ensure the availability of necessary response resources, carriers have effectively placed the burden of remediating the environmental consequences of an accident on local communities along their routes."
The council's resolution is non-binding. Facility approval will ultimately be decided by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
Washington state's deliberations will likely overlap with those of federal transportation officials, who in the coming months will decide to what extent, if any, they will further regulate oil train shipments.
In Canada, transportation officials announced this spring that the country will phase out DOT-111s within three years. The decision triggered alarm in the U.S., with advocacy groups warning that if American officials don't also prohibit DOT-111s from transporting Bakken oil, Canada's unwanted tanker cars are likely to land stateside.
"If these tank cars present an imminent and urgent danger to Canadian citizens, they pose an identical threat to Americans," wrote TRAC, a coalition of Canadian and American municipal officials, in a letter to the White House. "We applaud the Canadian government's ban of the older versions of the DOT-111. ... We wish the same sense of urgency existed for American regulators."
As American regulators continue their slow deliberations, Paske and other MFD firefighters are continuing to prepare for possible scenarios. In July, a local emergency response crew is slated to attend a newly offered three-day Bakken oil fire training workshop in Pueblo, Colo., hosted by BNSF.
Paske says roughly 60 percent of the July training will be devoted to field exercises, such as learning the mechanics of tanker train valves and how to use foam to fight a blaze. He hopes the training also involves working first-hand on a Bakken fire because he's never faced one before. Paske says he plans on taking full advantage of the education on oil trains because, he says, "it sounds like there's going to be more and more of them."