The things they carry 

More and more trains transport Bakken oil and other hazardous cargo through Missoula with outdated tanker cars. So why is so little being done to address the issue?

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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.

click to enlarge tanker, oil, bakken, missoula, train, news
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Transportation officials have warned for decades that DOT-111 tanker cars, like this one carrying petroleum through Missoula, are not adequate to handle flammable materials.

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."

click to enlarge bakken, oil, fire, train, casselton, north dakota
  • photo courtesy of Ken Pawluk
  • A Bakken oil fire erupts outside Casselton, N.D., on Dec. 30. When Cass County Emergency Manager Dave Rogness first saw the wreck, he thought to himself, “Is this what Hiroshima looked like when they dropped the bomb?”

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.

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