The library and the post office. A dozen schools. Hundreds of homes. Parks. Every brewery (oh god). Ten gas stations. The wastewater treatment facility. It can all go up in flames at any minute — and that’s just in Longmont. All you’ll hear is a whistle and a boom.
The number of trains carrying crude oil and other volatile materials through Boulder County is increasing, and with it comes the increased risk of a catastrophic explosion — from derailments, from outdated storage tanks and from increased rail traffic.
Perhaps the most startling fact is this: The amount of crude oil on U.S. railways has increased 3,500 percent in the last five years — from 325 million gallons in 2009 to 12 billion gallons in 2013. This is because there is more crude oil to ship out of the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and — more relevant to Boulder County — the Niobrara shale formation in northern Colorado and Wyoming. In order to meet this demand, railroads and oil distributors are using outdated tank cars (at least more than half of all oil is shipped in these cars) that are not built to carry the more volatile oil that is found in the region and that can explode — and have exploded — from simply overheating.
And yet railroad companies are not required to tell citizens, local or state governments the contents of their cars. It is proclaimed both a matter of national security and industry competitive secrets.
“Railroads are certainly a private industry,” says Greg Stasinos, of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “That’s something that they can keep within their rights” — even though those same trains are now affecting a much greater area than the rails they ride on.
In the last 12 months alone, nine trains carrying crude oil derailed or exploded in the U.S. and Canada, including a May 10 derailment outside of Greeley that spilled 65,000 gallons of oil. The worst incident by far was the July 6, 2013 derailment in Lac- Mégantic, Quebec. An unattended 72-car freight train carrying Bakken oil ran loose and exploded in the small town’s center. Forty-two people were killed and half the town’s buildings were destroyed.
In the U.S., a 90-car train derailed in western Alabama last November, shooting flames 300 feet into the sky and emptying nearly all of its 2.9 million gallons of crude oil into a swamp.
The area is still being cleaned.
Fortunately, most of those crashes occurred in unpopulated areas — the vast majority of track is located outside of city centers. However, increased output from the nearby Niobrara shale formation will send more oil trains through Boulder County in coming years — the Oil and Gas Journal (an industry magazine) says the Niobrara is emerging and “companies have been busy leasing land for future drilling. It has been compared by some to the Bakken shale formation farther to the north.”
Two rail companies operate the majority of railroads in Colorado: Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). Union Pacific does not own rail in Boulder County; instead, they have track heading north out of Denver that bends east through Greeley and up to Cheyenne. BNSF, however, has track that runs northwest from Denver through downtown Louisville and Longmont (and east Boulder) before heading through Fort Collins on its way to Cheyenne.
If a drilling company contracts with BNSF, that cargo — if it’s headed through the Front Range — can only use BNSF rail; that is, it can only come through Boulder County.
Tracks running next to residential neighborhoods in
Old Town Longmont.
Between four and 10 trains carrying Niobrara crude oil will pass through Colorado every week, says Andy Williams of BNSF. Many of those oil trains will pass along the track in Boulder County, according to Boulder Deputy Fire Chief Mike Calderazzo. (A map of Colorado track rights shows that the only full BNSF track in and out of the state runs north and south, including the stretch through Boulder County.) Routes vary greatly, Williams says, depending on where the shipper directs BNSF to deliver materials. Trains that carry crude oil, however, are likely coming from a Niobrara drilling site to a refinery on the Gulf Coast (Colorado is home to only one crude oil refinery, in Commerce City).
It should be noted that railroads, as common carriers, are required under federal law to ship hazardous materials like crude oil. They do not own many of the tank cars (less than 1 percent, according to the Association of American Railroads), or their contents, but they are responsible for its safe transport.
Williams says that BNSF does not make information available to the public about what trains are carrying and where they are going. They do, on occasion, notify local emergency responders like Calderazzo, the Boulder Fire Department and local hazardous materials teams when very large shipments of volatile materials are being transported through the county. Often these notifications come days or weeks after an oil train has passed through the area, or not at all.
“Railroads are very good at maintaining manifests so they know exactly what’s in each car, but I can’t say we receive any information letting us know what goes through each week,” says Mike Selan, Longmont Hazardous Materials Inspector.
“A lot of it is protected for national security reasons,” Calderazzo says. “They’re pretty powerful folks and they can withhold information from regular callers, but they do notify us that there are substantial amounts of crude oil coming through the county.”
In fact, railroads have only one requirement when it comes to notifying state and local government of the trans portation of hazardous materials. It’s a recent emergency order from the U.S. Department of Transportation that calls for railroads to notify state emergency response commissions when they are transporting more than one million gallons of Bakken crude oil. When other crude oil or hazardous materials are transported — as is mostly the case in Boulder County — emergency officials need not be told. And if they are told, that information is confidential and cannot be shared with the public.
“It is sensitive, confidential information,” says Amy Danzl, an emergency management specialist with the Boulder Office of Emergency Management. “We get them straight from BNSF or UP. They consider it trade secret stuff.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, not the state emergency management office, manages those notifications. Stasinos, who serves as deputy director of the emergency response division at the state health department, says both Union Pacific and BNSF have sent notifications to the state saying they do not ship Bakken crude oil in Colorado yet.
So the main, and often only, resource that first responders have to prepare for the derailment of an oil train is something called a commodity flow study. These studies are provided by the railroad quarterly or annually upon request of local emergency response teams and list all the materials that have been transported by the company through a specific area in the last year.
Thus, emergency teams can prepare generally for the types of hazardous materials they might encounter in a spill or derailment, but they can’t know beforehand when a train carrying those materials is coming through town.
“We make sure our hazmat teams monitor those so they know generally what comes through,” Danzl says. “So it’s not a day-to-day, here’s what’s coming through the county, but it is, here’s what happened over the last 12 months and that allows us to analyze that and plan accordingly so we can make sure our response capabilities are adequate.”
Those commodity flow studies have indicated to Boulder and Longmont emergency response personnel that crude oil and the cars they’re transported in, although not from the Bakken region, are still major concerns.
“The worst thing that could happen is a crude oil leak and a fire in a derailment,” Calderazzo says. “Then we have to figure out what we do with the smoke, people would have real problems with that, then we need to worry about where the leak is going.
“We look at the county and we look at sensitive environmental areas and sensitive population areas. We haven’t had any incidents in the county [so far] and I don’t really believe we’re under any additional risk other than if it’s true that crude is flowing in greater quantities.”
If the 3,500 percent increase in oil shipments nationally since 2009 and the industry quotes of gold rush-like Niobrara output aren’t enough, Union Pacific’s Mark Davis says of the possibility of increase in northern Colorado oil transportation: “Oh, definitely.” (Then, less succinctly, “We have Niobrara crude moving on us. There’s a couple plants or production facilities that are looking to come online in your neck of the woods.”) The dangerous part of all of this does not lay solely in the fact that the greatest ever quantity of crude oil is now being shipped throughout the country. Instead, perhaps the greatest reason for concern is what this oil is being shipped in.
When you see a train come through town, you’re likely to see one of several car types: crates used to ship commercial goods, racks used to transport cars and big industrial parts, empty beds, etc. Crude oil and other hazardous materials are shipped in a big pressurized black cylinder that dips slightly in the middle, on the top, where the release valve is.
Newer models of this tank are built to carry crude oil, specifically oil from the Bakken and emerging regions like our Niobrara crude, which has been said to be more volatile than oil that was transported in the past. The problem is, the majority of tanks used are the old models (called the DOT- 111), and many people (even the railroad companies) are not confident it is safe to transport this newer breed of crude oil in them.
“The older crude oil tanks were designed for crude oil that did not have a lot of pressure — a lot of vapor dissolved in it,” Calderazzo says. “And I’m told the newer crude, the stuff that’s coming out from fracking, has dissolved gas in it, so the real problem is over-pressurization of tanks. They go down the tracks and overheat.” And then explode.
Eddie Scher, communications director for nonprofit group Forest Ethics, says communities ultimately bear the risk for rail and oil companies who make money sending crude oil in unsafe tanks through population zones.
“If the practice is too dangerous to do then don’t do it,” Scher says. “[The DOT-111] is an antiquated design, it doesn’t protect in derailment, it’s likely to puncture, it doesn’t hold pressure so it releases into the atmosphere. These things are unsafe and shouldn’t be carrying oil of any kind.”
The Department of Transportation urged carriers and oil companies to stop use of DOT-111 cars immediately in May. Out of a total 335,000 tank cars in use across the country, about 228,000 — or two out of every three — are DOT-111 cars, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Williams says that although BNSF does not own the current tanks, they are working to build new, safer tanks to transport crude oil or to retrofit the dangerous old tanks. Every new tank car built since late 2011 has new design features like thicker walls, a high capacity pressure release valve and thermal protection.
But outdated tanks are not the only way in which a train carrying crude oil can cause significant damage to communities. Unprompted derailments, improper exchanges of tanks at depots, leaks, and collisions with other trains and structures have all led to serious explosions within the last 12 months. The issue is also not just the potential harm to people, but previous oil train derailments have caused negative environmental impacts, long-term damage to local infastructure and structural damage. And so adding more oil trains to the rails, specifically in Boulder County where track is narrow and frequently passes through population zones, is cause for concern.
Derailments, spills, leaks and explosions have a much wider impact area than just the immediate vicinity of the railroad (of which, unfortunately, the Quebec derailment was proof). Forest Ethics even put together a map of zones that would be impacted by a derailment and explosion (available at www.explosive-crude-by-rail.org). The map combines data from research, information from railroads and eyewitness accounts with Department of Transportation evacuation areas to create a “blast zone,” or a one-mile area on either side of a track that could experience significant damage from an oil train catastrophe.
This “blast zone” follows the BNSF track in Boulder County. The track parallels Main Street in Longmont before hooking southwest along Foothills Parkway toward Boulder. It breaks sharply east when it gets to about 28th and Arapahoe in
Boulder, then slowly crooks south through downtown Louisville, just scraping the edge of Lafayette. Again, the Department of Transportation views anything within a mile on either side of that route as a hazardous area should a derailment occur.
Planning to deal with an unknown material at an unknown time that could affect an unknown amount of people with an unknown amount of state or rail support cannot be easy. Boulder County, City of Boulder and City of Longmont officials all say they have been trained on how to deal with a variety of hazmat situations, but that they can’t prepare for everything. In fact, many local officials were still unclear about who would notify them in the case of a crude oil disaster and if crude oil was even being transported in the area.
“We can’t plan for every single [situation],” Calderazzo says.
“One tank car, depending on the product, can be a pretty big deal. Take chlorine. Chlorine, if it’s the anhydrous kind, can take just one tank car [to create major damage]. So we look at what are the most cars coming through — we only need [that information] on an annual basis. We try to go with, well, if crude oil is the big commodity then what would we do in terms of a risk assessment of crude oil?” There are regulations on what can and cannot be transported via rail and how rail companies must mark cars that contain hazardous materials. For instance, train cars carrying crude oil will have the number 1267, called a UN number (based on UN standards) on all four sides of the car and a diamond shaped warning label. Cars containing chlorine will have the number 1017, while those with liquefied petroleum gas will have the number 1075. Other hazardous materials that are transported in the area like molten sulfur, ethanol, propionic acid and diesel also have corresponding numbers available on the Department of Transportation website. (Williams says BNSF “typically [does] not operate ethanol trains in Colorado.”) Stasinos says that, at the state emergency level, training for spills with Bakken or Niobrara crude oil is the same as it is for other types of oil spills, even though it is likely more volatile than other crude oil. This training has been in place for more than two decades, he says.
That training includes a hazmat certification program run by the state that all local emergency personnel in Boulder County are required to take. Emergency personnel are drilled on how to treat all types of rail cars, learning what to do if there’s a leak, how to contain it, what to do if there’s a fire, projection modeling and how to protect people in the “blast zone.”
Oil train safety is also on the mind of state and national officials — the U.S. Fire Administration sent out a one-sheet “Coffee Break Training” entitled “Bakken Crude in Transportation” last month, while the EPA’s latest newsletter outlines the rise and risk of transporting crude oil. The newsletter heralds the recent Department of Transportation notification requirement as a step to improved community safety and encourages rail carriers to test all crude oil to determine its volatility class before shipping it.
Even BNSF is now offering three-day classes to local emergency responders on how to deal with crude oil disasters. BNSF runs free railroad hazmat response training to about 4,000 local emergency responders every year in communities across their network.
Still, advocates seeking to bring attention to the danger of oil trains say communities shouldn’t have to deal with the risk of catastrophe from a derailment. Scher says the choice of transporting oil via train or via pipeline — of which both have significant safety issues — or via any other method is a “false choice.”
“The idea that the oil has to be moved and so somebody needs to be forced to take the risk is wrongheaded,” Scher says. “It’s not something we should have to accept. We should not be accepting this massive rise of dangerous trains through our population centers. There are regulations under review at the White House; we want those to be strong. And one thing we believe is communities should have the right to say no to these trains.”