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More and more trains transport Bakken oil and other hazardous cargo through Missoula with outdated tanker cars.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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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.

click to enlarge oil, train, explosion, quebec, bakken
  • photo courtesy of Sûreté du Québec
  • Forty-seven people died on July 5, 2013, when an oil train careened into the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and triggered a series of explosions.

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.

click to enlarge missoula, fire department, paske, bakken, oil, train, montana rail link
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Missoula Fire Department Battalion Chief Steve Paske responded to an April 20 fire downtown involving a Montana Rail Link locomotive carrying 110 cars of Bakken oil. The fire turned out to be contained in the train’s engine and never reached its hazardous load.

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.

click to enlarge bakken, oil, train, phillips 66, missoula, news, montana, gasoline
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The Phillips 66 Refined Products Terminal in Missoula serves as a transfer station for fuel being shipped to Washington state. Tanker cars criticized by regulators move gasoline and diesel fuel from the facility to Thompson Falls.

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."

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