Early Saturday morning on February 28th, the auditorium at the Rockland County Fire Training Center was filled with firefighters from Rockland County and surrounding counties from New York and New Jersey. The firefighters had given up a Saturday morning to attend a very timely seminar that gave them insight into the significant hazards and challenges created by train derailments involving Bakken crude oil.
The seminar became a reality when Rockland County Deputy Fire Coordinator Dan Moran and Hazmat Team Officer Jerry Knapp attended a New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control sponsored hazardous materials conference back in November in Cooperstown, New York. Dan and Jerry came back very excited by one of the presentations in which they participated. They recommended that we reach out to the speaker and try to make arrangements to have him give his program locally.
The speaker was Fire Chief Tim Pellerin of the Rangeley Fire Department in northern Maine. On July 5th, 2013, Chief Pellerin and his department responded with other Maine departments to a mutual aid request at the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, for a disastrous train derailment involving Bakken crude oil. At the time of dispatch, the Maine units were told to prepare for a long-term deployment and an 80-plus mile response.
Chief Pellerin indicated that they were on scene about 2 1/2 hours after dispatch. He utilized superb video and photographs throughout his presentation, starting with video taken from his Chief's vehicle as they approached the incident from several miles away until they arrived on scene. Any 1st responder could place themselves in the front seat of that vehicle as it gets closer and closer to the large column of black smoke. He then gives a chronological summary of the overall incident, along with details of the strategy, tactics and problems they encountered, emphasizing the loss of infrastructure, i.e. water, sewage system, drainage system, etc.
Chief Pellerin begins his description of the incident by starting with the local Fire Chief, whose fire department pager was activated for a possible house fire. While the Chief was getting dressed, his wife looked out the window and called out that the entire town was on fire. The local Chief thought it was just a large building until he took a look and quickly determined that his wife was not exaggerating. Much of the business section of their town was destroyed, along with the infrastructure. In addition, 47 lives were lost. This was a major disaster for any fire department, let alone a small volunteer department in rural Canada.
It turns out that this was not a typical derailment like we see so frequently, where a train hits a vehicle at a crossing and derails or jumps the tracks due to a malfunction or a problem with the rails. It appears that the prior evening, several miles away, the same train experienced a serious fire.
That fire department was dispatched for a locomotive fire. When the fire department responded, it found a working fire in a locomotive that was running while attached to a very long train carrying over 100 of the older D.O.T. 111 tank cars, each carrying approx 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil. What got my attention was the fact that the fire department found the train to be totally unattended, with the locomotive running. It became apparent that to extinguish the fire the fire department would need to shut down the locomotive engine and cut off the fuel supply. Because the train was unattended, they reached out to the railroad, who advised them on the steps to take. They were successful in shutting down the locomotive and were able to extinguish the fire. They apparently left the scene not knowing that the train would lose its brakes and would start to roll down the tracks, creating a catastrophic series of events.
A subsequent investigation revealed that the engineer for the train, who was questioned, had stopped the train earlier that evening, setting some but not all of the brakes and leaving the locomotive running to maintain the braking system. The crew then left the train totally unattended for the night. After the fire department left the scene, Chief Pellerin indicated that the brakes could not hold the tremendous weight of the train; and it started to roll, picking up speed as it went. When the train derailed in the middle of Lac-Megantic, the investigators indicated the train was traveling approximately 63 miles per hour.
Why in the world would a company allow a train containing large amounts of hazardous materials to be left unattended for any amount of time, let alone for hours and hours? Apparently, this railroad filed for bankruptcy right after the accident, according to Chief Pellerin.
I believe that this is a common practice and widespread here in the United States as well. Just last summer I was notified by a local Police Chief that a freight train had been parked unattended for four days, blocking an emergency access road to a local tourist site. He indicated that the locomotive was left running for the first two days, and at some point it was shut down. I asked the Police Chief what the cargo was, and he indicated containerized garbage. A few miles north of this location, I also received complaints about trains blocking a private road going into a construction site, restricting emergency responders' vehicles getting to the site. While investigating this complaint, we found out from the railroad supervisors that this newly created siding was used to park trains while the crews were rotated or went for a break/meal. They also indicated that unattended trains were left at this location for long periods of time. I would like to add that both of the local locations are extremely remote and surrounded by woods.
In this age of increased concerns and awareness related to terrorism or even vandalism, how can we allow railroads to continue with this practice? How easy are we making it for the bad guys to take advantage of these unattended mile-plus long trainloads of hazardous materials? I should add that I have not studied the report from the Canadian disaster but wonder why the train would be parked on a grade, not on a flat surface or blocked somehow. Wouldn't it make sense to require parking trains at secure locations and at least have security guards who can keep an eye on these potentially large-scale hazmat incidents?
I just read a study where it is estimated that there will be 10 or more accidents involving Bakken oil tank cars each year in the United States. The report states that if a similar situation to the Canadian incident took place in an urban area, hundreds of people could potentially die; and the cost associated would be in the billions.
Our county has formed a task force and so far has developed a grid map of all areas stratling the railroad tracks, pre-identifying high-risk buildings like nursing homes, hospitals, and schools that would present challenges if evacuations were needed. They are also working on a system for delivering maximum water and foam supplies to any potential derailments in our area.
Our county has hundreds of these Bakken oil trains traversing through our county, many if not most, containing over 100 tank cars and nationally it's thousands of communities. After taking part in this training, our fire service leaders have a better appreciation for the magnitude of the problems associated with such an incident. If you are able to attend one of his seminars, I would highly recommend that you take it.