If a train hauling more than 100 cars of highly volatile crude oil were to derail in Bellingham, would the city be prepared?
What if it instead left the tracks near Ferndale, or rural Custer, or along Chuckanut Drive, where an accident only feet from the water might be nearly impossible for first responders to reach from land?
After fiery accidents in the U.S. and Canada showed some of the risks of oil transportation, communities around the country turned their attention to the safety of oil by rail.
But the question of whether Whatcom County or any other community can fully prepare for the risk of a crude derailment is complex and may not have a simple answer.
Never miss a local story.
“Any event like this will overwhelm any jurisdiction and exhaust its resources,” said Kent Catlin, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management. “All of us operate at a bare bones of what we need because it doesn’t make sense to have more staff than needed.”
The most devastating of several high-profile crude oil accidents happened July 6, 2013, in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, when a train loaded with more than 2 million gallons of North Dakota’s Bakken region crude oil derailed in the center of town and caught fire, killing 47 people and destroying 40 buildings.
It took “more than 1,000 firefighters from 80 different municipalities in Quebec, and from six counties in the state of Maine” to help with evacuations and fire-fighting efforts in the small town of only a few thousand people, according to a Transportation Safety Board of Canada report.
After that accident, many people realized that little was known about what and how much material is shipped by rail through their communities each day.
This spring, the U.S. Department of Transportation mandated that railroads tell first responders about the number of trains carrying at least 1 million gallons of crude oil through each county.
Several states, including Washington, rapidly made that information public.
The first week of June, Whatcom, home to two major Pacific Coast refineries, had five of the state’s 19 crude oil trains roll through it. The next week Whatcom had six of the state’s 13.
A crude oil rail terminal at BP Cherry Point refinery went into operation in December 2013. It is expected the refinery eventually will receive an average of one train delivery per day — the amount the facility is allowed by permit. Just to the south, Phillips 66 refinery plans to bring its rail terminal online this fall and eventually receive up to one train every other day.
When faced with an event like a derailment, first responders have to decide whether to fight or surround the problem, depending on available resources and the size and intensity of any fire or spill, said Roger Christensen, Bellingham’s interim emergency manager and recently retired fire chief.
“If you’re faced with an event you can’t do anything about, you have to decide how to protect what’s around it,” Christensen said.
In late July, Patrick Brady, BNSF director of Hazardous Materials Special Operations, spoke with Klickitat County residents in White Salmon, where the rail line runs along the Columbia River. According to railroad numbers reported in early June, Klickitat, a county of roughly 20,000 people, had the most oil trains in the state traveling through it.
Because Bakken crude is considered a “light” oil, different from the heavy tar sands oil from Canada, in the event of a spill into the Columbia, BNSF “might let (the oil) go another 10 or 20 miles down the river to catch at the dam,” Brady told the group.
But that plan is vastly different from the oil response tactics in Puget Sound, said Gus Melonas, BNSF spokesman for the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s a rapid response plan in the Puget Sound region,” Melonas said. “There’s no waiting.”
The North Puget Sound Geographic Response Plan, put together by the state Department of Ecology and local agencies, dictates how teams might respond.
BNSF could send contractors and staff to take the lead in managing an oil spill on land or water, Melonas said.
As far as Whatcom County resources, the Lummi Nation Oil Spill Response Team is trained and ready to drop booming materials immediately in the event of an oil spill into the water, Catlin said.
“We’re at a real advantage,” Catlin said. “Not many cities have that.”
A 30-member hazardous materials team, called the Whatcom County Specialized Emergency Response Program, also would respond and help with diking and other containment methods. The team is made up of trained personnel from local law enforcement and fire departments, and also includes employees from private industries.
Let it burn
With millions of gallons of potential combustible material on each train, if a fiery accident were to occur, even the most prepared communities might just have to sit back and watch it burn.
Most fire departments carry small amounts of firefighting foam that can be used to contain fuel and keep vapors from getting into the air, Christensen said.
“It’s the vapor that burns, not the fuel,” he said.
Bellingham fire engines carry about 15 gallons of foam concentrate, which is diluted with water hoses. BP Cherry Point and Phillips 66 both have larger stockpiles of foam on site for refinery safety, and BNSF Railway keeps foam and other supplies strategically placed along rail lines throughout the state.
If Whatcom personnel requested help in responding to an event along the railway, BP would be willing to help out to the extent the refinery is able to while still making sure its facility is protected, BP spokesman Scott Dean wrote in an email in July.
But even with the refineries nearby and local contractors who could respond with tugboats holding 6,000 gallons of foam concentrate, the large amounts of crude oil still could prove overwhelming.
Whatcom agencies have evacuation and mass communication plans in place, but to fight a fire on a large spill would test any agency, Christensen said.
“I don’t think you would find any city in the country that is prepared for a million-gallon spill,” Christensen said.
Crude oil train derailments in Quebec, Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia took anywhere from several hours to a couple of days to burn out.
“Even with a lot of foam you may not be able to put that fire out,” Brady told those at the White Salmon meeting. “Plus, it’s better to consume the oil in that fire rather than put it out and now it’ll get into the river, or in a populated area like Seattle it’ll get into the storm drains.”
Preparing for all hazards
While recent attention on crude oil transportation has driven many agencies to update their rail safety plans, most plans cover the tactics of responding to a variety of hazardous situations.
“(Bakken crude) is what’s caught everyone’s imagination, but we do all hazards planning,” Catlin said.
For emergency planning purposes, the concerns are the same whether a derailment were to include crude oil, propane or any other chemical, such as those that go to processing plants that make plastic and other goods, said Gary Russell, chief of Whatcom County Fire District No. 7.
“People don’t recognize the things they use in their household uses are things that go up and down the rail line,” Russell said. “There’s sulfur, there’s butane, there’s diesel and propane.”
But at least partly because of the increased attention on rail safety, most local jurisdictions have increased planning for train derailments in recent months.
For its part, District 7 has taken on the task of creating a color-coded map of its coverage area so responders can quickly tell what types of resources, such as water or foam, may be available along various parts of the rail line, Russell said.
At the direction of Gov. Jay Inslee, the Department of Ecology is studying the risks of marine and rail oil transportation, and is due to issue its initial recommendations Oct. 1.
On the county level, first responders and emergency planners from around Whatcom gathered on Aug. 26 for a table-top exercise to update the county’s response plan for any type of train derailment, be it freight, passenger car or hazardous materials.
Firefighters and emergency managers put on the exercise at the Whatcom Unified Emergency Coordination Center near Bellingham International Airport that opened in early 2014.
The center brings local emergency management resources together under one roof, Catlin said. It can hold the 150 to 250 or more people needed to respond to events ranging from natural disasters to terrorist attacks. Or train derailments.
BNSF also has trained 600 first responders in Washington state this year, Melonas said. The company will pay to send 142 Washington firefighters to a specialized crude-by-rail training facility in Pueblo, Colo., where they will train with derailed cars and foam in a more realistic setting.
District 7 already has had four staff members train in Pueblo and plans for six or seven more to take the training before December, Russell said.
In general, rail is a safe mode of transportation that doesn’t cause many issues, Russell said.
“I’ve been in the fire service for 41 years,” he said. “I’ve only seen four derailments. Two were tipped off but nothing happened, one was a passenger car struck by a cement car, and another was a fuel tank on an engine.”