By Linda Kor
The railroad has been an integral part of life in northern Arizona for more than 100 years. On average a train passes through the communities of Winslow, Joseph City and Holbrook every 15 to 18 minutes, transporting everything from food grains and raw materials to coal and hazardous chemicals. The federal government has long recognized that rail is the safest method for transporting hazardous materials over long distances, but an increased demand for highly volatile crude oil creates a greater risk than most and it’s anticipated that the oil will begin to be transported through this region in the near future.
The demand for the oil has increased, thanks to the application of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies that began in 2000. According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), by the end of 2003, in North Dakota, Bakken shale oil production was at 81,000 barrels per day, but as of 2014 that had gone up to 1.1 million barrels per day as the demand for the oil at West Coast refineries in Washington and California has increased.
The oil is considered a type of “light sweet crude,” that is easier to refine, but also easier to ignite. In January 2014 the US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety alert stating that derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil. The alert noted that the oil’s flashpoint is below 73 degrees Fahrenheit and the boiling point is below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This means the materials pose significant fire risk if released from the package in an accident.
A report by the AAR shows that there were 9,500 rail cars carrying crude oil in 2008. Last year there were more than 400,000. Although not common, train derailments involving crude oil in the U.S. and Canada went from three each year in 2013 and 2014 to six so far this year. The most devastating incident occurred in July 2013 when a train derailed and exploded in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people and destroying 40 buildings. The explosion caused a fire that burned for 36 hours. In another incident in February of this year, a derailment of crude oil in West Virginia set off fires that burned for days. Drinking water was affected, a house was leveled and hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes.
In any derailment local emergency services would coordinate to ensure that residents are evacuated and the site contained, but crude oil brings with it a more challenging problem. The recommended evacuation zone for a crude oil derailment is half a mile. In Holbrook that would include the police department, dispatch, the fairgrounds, schools and the senior citizen extended care facility, and would block access to Highway 77 and close a section of Interstate 40. It would also require an emergency response from both sides of the track. Winslow faces similar issues with its police department, fire department, animal shelter and airport. The hospital and senior residence facility lay beyond that zone, but the hospital would be facing an influx of patients.
In either community the response would mean not only relocating citizens, but also some of its key facilities once officials know what cargo is involved.
In the derailment at Lac-Megantic, it was later reported that few residents knew that millions of gallons of the highly flammable light crude oil were passing through their town nearly every day. Federal law states that it is not required for towns to be notified of Bakken crude transported by rail as long as it’s under one million pounds of oil per load.
A report by the Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration compiled last year states that in recent years, a rise in mainline derailments involving crude oil has risen along with the increase in crude oil production and rail shipments of crude oil. As a result, they have proposed enhanced car standards to reduce the risk of a leak of the volatile oil if an accident should occur. They predict about 15 mainline derailments for 2015, falling to a prediction of about five mainline derailments by 2034 with the improvements, but those improvements will be implemented over time as cars are replaced. It was also proposed to reduce speeds to 40 mph through communities without current speed restrictions in an effort to reduce the possibility of a derailment.
Last April, safety officials and firefighters from across northern Arizona met at Camp Navajo for training designed to prepare first responders in this region for the possibility of Bakken crude oil coming through Arizona along the rail line. The five counties along the I-40 corridor took part in the exercise designed to bring awareness, but each community was left to determine how to best respond.
Navajo County Emergency Management Coordinator Catrina Jenkins noted that recent reports have shown Bakken production has slowed as of late and there is a possibility that transportation of the oil this far south may not take place if it continues to slow. “I haven’t received any notification of shipments over the one million pounds coming through Arizona as of yet, and there’s a chance that it won’t happen,” stated Jenkins.
“We intend to have a emergency response training in October or November that would include Apache County. We are working on a timeframe that would allow BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway) to take part,” she said.
When and if Bakken crude oil will be coming through local communities will be determined by the fluctuating oil market, but regardless, public awareness and response to this or any potential derailment requires community support and participation. According to Jenkins, it’s an important aspect of emergency management planning, “This (a derailment) of any kind would be a very bad thing for certain, but we’ll do our best to provide the training needed in the event that something should occur.”