09/19/14 By Lance Stryker (a volunteer firefighter with the White Salmon Fire Department in the Columbia River Gorge)
A BNSF response person put on a dog and pony show last Tuesday [ 09/16/14 ] at the White Salmon WA Fire Hall for several of the fire departments along the Columbia on the Washington side.
First, the encouraging (?) part. BNSF will make the Bakken shale oil all one unit trains.
That means that instead of interspersing 4 or 5 oil tank cars in between tanks of other hazardous materials such as hydrochloric acid and similar toxic materials the Bakken shale oil tank cars will make up a single 120 tank car train of which there are expected to be at least 15 a day beginning very soon.
The real response time from BNSF personnel to communities in the Gorge is at least 6 hours, not the 4 hours we were told by the corporate department head.
The minimum safe distance from a Bakken shale oil tank fire is one-thousand feet or 14 to 16 railroad car lengths from the fire. Apparently, that is as close as the BNSF personnel can get to unhook unaffected cars or tank cars in order to pull them away.
There is really no way to initially attack a Bakken shale oil tank car fire, even with the foam that BNSF has available because the fires burn too hot. The only response is to let the fire burn down to where the fire is at a minimum and then cool the super-heated tank metal with foam as there always is some residual burnable toxics left in the tank cars.
This is so that BNSF response personnel can safely approach and begin to clear the track.
All BNSF tank cars are not fixed to their wheels so that in a derailment, the tank cars separate from the wheels and careen off of the tracks. The BNSF response person did not know the reason for this but he guessed that it had to do with maintenance.
All in all, it was a rather sobering presentation. Even if the derailment does not involve a Bakken shale oil tank car, there is no way to safely approach a derailment to determine whether a toxic tank car is involved.
If a person approaches close enough to read the information on the tank car, that is probably too close and a fatal exposure may occur. The only reliable option is to evacuate the public and to stay at least one thousand feet away in an up wind position.
It’s all in Murphy’s law - whatever can go wrong will go wrong.
By Laurent Picard, LT with Portland Fire and a Hood River City Councilmember
--There seems to be an assumption that federal and state regulators must have studied the dangers of oil trains; must have prepared emergency responders to deal with a derailment, explosion or spill; must have performed a comprehensive assessment of the risk to our communities—must have covered all these bases prior to allowing these trains through our communities. But unfortunately I can assure you that there have been no such studies and we are woefully unprepared for a derailment here in the gorge.
The risks are clear:
--Bakken crude is so dangerous that the regular rules that emergency responders use for evacuation don’t apply. According to the DOT ERG which is the hazmat bible for first responders, the evacuation distance for tanker cars is 0.5 miles. The blast radius in the Quebec derailment that killed 47 people was 0.6 miles, so even if people were evacuated to what is believed to be the proper distance from a burning railcar, they could still have been killed in the explosion.
In a memo from our Portland Fire Hazmat team, Portland fire commanders are advised to disregard the recommended evacuation distance of 0.5 miles for oil tanker cars and, due to the volatility of Bakken crude, instead use the guidelines for gasoline, which has an evacuation distance of 1 mile.
We found that none of the local agencies have received any special training, funding or equipment from the railroads to help them deal with a derailment.
We know it would take at least 2000 gallons of class B foam, applied all at once—you can’t piecemeal it a few hundred gallons at time or the fire will reignite and you have to start all over again-- to put out an oil train fire. Local agencies have no class B foam. None.
So let’s go through a simplified exercise:
CONDITIONS: Massive fire. This would cause multiple structure fires in the vicinity of the derailment. Depending on location and given Gorge winds, there could be brush and wildland fires which could cause a major conflagration. If there were an explosion, we would see even more fire spread, along with multiple structural collapses. Along with explosion/fire/structural collapse is huge potential for injury and deaths. Given the 30,000 gallon capacity of each railcar, we could see massive oil spills into the river.
ACTIONS: First priority would be life safety—meaning triage, extrication (from collapsed structures), and treatment of the injured, in conjunction with evacuation of a mile radius around the incident. Next would be fire control and extinguishment of surrounding structures and any wildland fires set by the train fire. Next would be extinguishment of the oil train fire itself. Final priority would be oil spill containment.
NEEDS: And here is where we run into trouble—matching our needs with the resources available. Let me be clear—this is only my opinion based on the answers we received from Gorge first responders to our survey and based on my 18 years of experience in the fire service:
Portland Firefighter report
In May of 2011, we responded to an ethanol train fire. Only one car caught on fire. To do this require:
15 fire engines,
6 ladder trucks,
9 chief officers,
11 water tenders,
1 foam unit,
13 other local, state and federal agencies.
110 personnel total responded and we were on scene all day.
This was in an isolated area off of Hwy 30, not in a population center like Washougal. so all we had to deal with was the fire and keeping the other tank cars from exploding.
In Washougal, you have a total of 44 career firefighters in the whole department.
In Hood River we have 13.
--For a fire or explosion in a Gorge population center, the needs would be exponentially greater and even an entire department the size of Portland’s, Vancouver’s or Seattle’s would be quickly overwhelmed.
So let’s briefly go through our NEEDS-----
--Treatment and triage of the injured: Neither we nor the state fire marshal have a plan for a MCI of this type and we do not have the resources or the training region-wide to deal with hundreds of potential injuries.
--Evacuation: we have no region-wide plan, nor have we trained for this scenario either locally or regionally. Even using every police officer and fire agency in the Gorge and with excellent and extensive interagency coordination and training, evacuation of a mile radius around the incident would be extraordinarily difficulty and would sap all our resources.
--Fire extinguishment of surrounding structures: Unlikely to get too far, as we would be too occupied with treatment of the injured and evacuation.
--Fire extinguishment of the train fire: Gorge fire departments have neither the class B foam nor the resources necessary to apply it to the fire, so we would have to let it burn until BNSF or UP arrives with thousands of gallons of foam and the means to apply it. I don’t know how long that would take, but given that we were told in our Hood River survey that it could take up to 45 minutes for the railroad to even confirm what the contents of the railroad cars is, I am not optimistic for a quick response.
--Final need: spill response. Local agencies have no booming, so again we would have to wait for the railroads and possibly the coast guard to arrive with potentially thousands of feet of booming and the means to deploy it. By then the spill could expand to disastrous proportions.
So what do I think needs to happen??
First I agree with Mayor Clinton of Bend when he suggests that there should be a fee on shipments of haz mats to raise money for governments to prepare for incidents such as oil train fires. Of course this has to happen at the federal level.
I think the railroads and the oil industry need to step up and help local governments with our preparation for an oil train incident—and so far, despite the assurances I have read from them in the press and from the information we have gathered from our survey of local first responders, they have failed to help local governments in any meaningful way.
I also agree with and applaud the Gorge Commission’s recent resolution urging OR and WA to impose a moratorium on these Bakken Oil trains in the Gorge until a comprehensive risk assessment is completed.
In Hood River, the City Council has written a letter to Governor Kitzhaber with 2 requests: First for OR to conduct or commission such a risk assessment, noting that Governor Inslee has already directed his staff to perform a risk assessment of these oil trains, so perhaps OR and WA can work together on this issue.
Second, Direct the state Fire Marshal, in consultation with local fire departments, districts, the railroads, and other relevant jurisdictions to prepare a comprehensive emergency response plan for the full range and locations of possible accidents in the gorge.
New federal regulations as of June require us to be informed of the estimated volume and frequency of train traffic involving 1,000,000 gallons or more oil in a single train. This is a step in the right direction, but does not help us with risk assessment or the nuts and bolts of emergency response.
Until we know the level of risks involved and have a coherent plan in case of a train disaster, I think it is the height of irresponsibility to allow these trains to continue to transport Bakken crude through the gorge.
If a train derailment and fire were to occur tomorrow, I would not want to be in the either of the governor’s shoes when he is inevitably asked by the press “did you do everything you could to prevent this disaster?”