The recent public concern and media attention on crude oil has been surprising to some of Whatcom County’s first responders, as that and other hazardous materials have for decades traveled along local tracks.
Gary Russell is chief of Whatcom County Fire District No. 7, which has jurisdiction over roughly 7 miles of the BNSF main line along Portal Way between Ferndale and Custer. District 7 also covers more than 5 miles of track called the Custer spur, which takes products to and from local industries like the BP Cherry Point and Phillips 66 refineries and aluminum smelter Alcoa Intalco Works.
“There’s a lot of products much worse than crude oil going up and down the rail today,” Russell said. “Oil going down the main line and on the spurs has been happening for years.”
While oil-by-rail transportation is nothing new, the amount moved in train cars has risen rapidly in just a few years.
In a July 23 press release, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx cited skyrocketing production of Bakken crude oil, which was “up from 9,500 rail-carloads in 2008 … to 415,000 last year, a more than 4,000-percent increase.”
From January through July 2014, it is estimated that more than 50 percent of approximately 460,000 carloads carrying petroleum and petroleum products in the U.S. contained crude oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Association of American Railroads.
Compare that with 2009, when crude made up only 3 percent of petroleum carloads, according to the EIA.
But petroleum cars make up only a small percentage of what is carried by BNSF, the largest shipper of crude oil in Washington state and a perfect match for carrying crude from the Bakken region in North Dakota to Northwest refineries, said Gus Melonas, BNSF spokesman for the Pacific Northwest.
“We move anything from A to Z, and oil is now in the mix,” Melonas said. “Roughly 4 percent is made up of oil, but it’s all based on demand. It’s likely that number will increase as there’s no pipeline and we’re the natural fit.”
BNSF’s lines through Washington also have proven safe, Melonas said.
“On our northern tier, which encompasses the Great Lakes, across the plains, through the Rockies to the Pacific Northwest ports, we have not had one fatality as the result of a hazmat release since 1981,” Melonas said.
Over the past two years BNSF went to a “unit train” concept for crude oil, moving roughly 100 cars of just one product to a specific destination.
“We’ve gone to unit operations for decades for other commodities,” Melonas said. “With those dedicated trains, it’s easier handling, it’s more efficient, and it works better for the customer.”
Those trains hauling 20 or more cars of Class 3 flammable liquids, like crude oil, have been dubbed “high-hazard flammable trains” by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is seeking to strengthen regulations on hazardous materials.
Public comments are due Sept. 30 on proposed requirements from PHMSA, which is working with the Federal Railroad Administration to update regulations. To comment, search for “enhanced tank car standards” at regulations.gov.
Groups concerned about the safety of oil trains have made one of their rallying calls a demand to have companies trade in all old DOT-111 rail cars, which are used to carry hazardous and flammable liquids, for higher standard cars, like the CPC-1232.
For decades the DOT-111 cars have been found more likely to puncture or burst. The National Transportation Safety Board, which recommended upgraded regulations for crude oil and ethanol cars in 2011, is working on updating rail safety standards.
The newer cars have thicker shells, head shields on either end of the car and improved fittings on top of the car.
But even with the 2011 standards, newer rail cars may not prove safer. At least one of the newer model cars burst and spilled thousands of gallons of oil into the James River when a crude oil train derailed and caught fire April 30 in Lynchburg, Virginia, The New York Times reported.
About 70 percent of the crude oil rail cars that BNSF currently moves through Washington state are already the newer design, Melonas said.
Earlier this year, Phillips 66 ordered 1,200 of the new cars, said Phillips spokesman Jeff Callender. BP has ordered 400 new cars for its Whatcom County facility.
Most of the cars BNSF and other railroads move are leased to or owned by the companies that use them. But after several high-profile crude oil train accidents, BNSF committed in February to buying 5,000 rail cars that should meet or exceed the newer standards.
“There’s obviously a lot of public concern, and we certainly understand,” Melonas said. “We’re doing all we can to take the fear out of this product that America is demanding.”