As Iowa emergency responders wait to learn how much crude oil is coming through their counties, most say they don’t have enough supplies to fight a fire from even one tank car — much less a unit train carrying 35 cars of extra-flammable crude.
Winneshiek County Emergency Manager Bruce Goetsch has this advice for an Iowa community facing a crash of this magnitude: “Make sure your tennis shoes are on and start running,” he said.
Crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota, Montana and Canada fueled fires and explosions during several train derailments in the past year. The worst of these accidents involved a runaway freight train carrying Bakken crude that crashed into a Quebec town last July, killing 47 people and destroying more than 30 buildings.
Canadian Pacific Railway and BNSF Railway Co. told Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management earlier this month they are shipping more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude on single trains through some parts of the state.
Union Pacific also is hauling crude, but less than the threshold listed in new federal reporting requirements.
Iowa Homeland Security will make public next month specific details on how often high-volume crude trains are going through each county. Agencies already have started planning.
Counties making plans
“Right now, we’re revamping all of our plans because of the higher volumes,” said Dubuque Fire Chief Dan Brown.
Canadian Pacific could be hauling Bakken crude through Dubuque, Brown said. But when the railroad provides county officials a list of the top 25 hazardous materials by volume being shipped through Dubuque County, crude isn’t on the list.
But Brown knows heavy crude shipments are moving along BNSF lines just across the Mississippi River in Wisconsin and Illinois, he said.
BNSF also owns tracks that go through Fairfield, which has a 19-person, mostly volunteer fire department, Chief Scott Vaughan said.
“If there was a spill or a fire, our big thing would be containment and evacuation,” he said. “We train for it, but training and actually doing are two different things.”
Washington County Emergency Manager Larry Smith knows Canadian Pacific is hauling Bakken crude through his county because the fuel is included on the railroad’s top 25 chemicals list. Smith worries about a fire or explosion in Washington, a city of 7,300.
“It goes right next to our water treatment plant,” Smith said. “The radiant heat could disable our water source.”
Additional regulation for Bakken
The crude oil in question comes from the Bakken formation, which covers about 200,000 square miles in North Dakota, Montana and Canada. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has caused a boom in recent years.
Oil companies are shipping much of the crude by rail, often using outdated tank cars called DOT-111s that are vulnerable to puncture in a derailment.
Because the Bakken crude has been found to be more flammable than other oil, the U.S. DOT issued an emergency order May 7 giving railroads 30 days to provide each state with county-specific estimates about the number of trains carrying a million gallons or more each week.
BNSF and Canadian Pacific wanted states to share the information just with emergency managers, but the Iowa Attorney General decided earlier this month to make the county-specific notifications available to the public as soon as July 7.
Tracking train loads
Emergency managers in Iowa said railroads are notoriously secretive about what they’re hauling, how much and when.
“Do we have one tank car, 100 or 1,000?” Winneshiek County’s Goetsch said. “That makes a big difference.”
A 2010 commodity study in Johnson County showed 443 million gallons of flammable liquids traveled the Iowa Interstate Railroad, which runs through Iowa City. Flammables included ethanol, petroleum products and paint.
Another 2.3 million gallons of corrosives, including hydrochloric acid, battery acid and potassium hydroxide, shipped via Iowa Interstate and Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railroad in 2010, the study showed.
Iowa Homeland Security channeled nearly $270,000 in government grants to local emergency planning commissions in 2013 for commodity studies, planning and drills. A similar amount of money is projected to be granted in 2014, with a new focus on crude oil emergencies.
Are we prepared?
A large-scale derailment of crude oil would be more than any Iowa county could handle alone, officials said.
The Coralville Fire Department is one of a few agencies in Eastern Iowa with a trailer that can haul large amounts of firefighting foam. The trailer has 550 gallons of alcohol-resistant Class B foam that can be used on petroleum-based or ethanol fires, Chief Dave Stannard said.
“It creates a foam blanket that reduces the oxygen to a fire and makes it go out,” he said.
But for each gallon of foam, firefighters need 97 gallons of water. Stannard estimates Coralville has enough foam to fight a fire in a tanker truck on Interstate 80 or maybe one 30,000-gallon tank car in a train derailment.
The Cedar Rapids Fire Department has a foam trailer and The Eastern Iowa Airport has a cache of foam in case of an airplane fire, Cedar Rapids Public Safety Spokesman Greg Buelow said. However, many rural fire departments and haz-mat teams have only five-gallon buckets of the firefighting mix.
Coralville used about 110 gallons, or one-fifth of the trailer supply, to extinguish a 2010 fire at Kalona Tire. The company’s insurance paid to replace the foam, which costs about $20 per gallon, Stannard said.
Minnesota recently implemented a law requiring railroad and oil pipeline companies to pay for training and programs to prepare for emergencies, the Associated Press reported. The law allows the state to collect up to $2.5 million a year from companies until July 1, 2017.
The money will be used to help first responders prepare for derailments and spills.
Iowa Homeland Security officials have considered similar plans, but haven’t proposed a bill to the Iowa Legislature, Spokesman John Benson said.