Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on March 1, 2020.

Learning from Crude

The recent Bakken boom may inform the discussion over rail car safety and its impact on first responders

One of the hottest points of contention over the proposed rail transport of liquid natural gas (LNG) focuses on the cars that would be used to ship it.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), a branch of the US Department of Transportation (USDOT), is proposing to use what are known as DOT-113 railcars to transport LNG. The cars, which for years have transported other cryogenic liquids such as liquid ethylene, are double-hulled with a vacuum-sealed layer of air between them, and boast “a demonstrated safety record,” according to PHMSA reports. It cites 14 instances from 1980 to 2017 where DOT-113 cars were damaged in crashes, noting that both the inner and outer hulls were breached in only two of those—a statistic PHMSA offers as evidence that the DOT-113 can move LNG safely.

Opponents, including the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), dispute that premise. In a letter opposing the PHMSA proposal, the NTSB pointed out that there are currently only 67 DOT-113 tank cars in the North American fleet and that ethylene is currently the only hazardous material permitted in them—a substance that is not listed among the 125 most-hazardous materials transported by rail. “Relying on data for the accident history of similar hazardous materials transported in the small fleet of DOT-113 tank cars . . . does not provide a statistically significant or valid safety assessment and calls into question how PHMSA determined the specification DOT-113 tank car is an acceptable package to transport LNG,” the NTSB said. The board called for a “thorough safety assessment” of the DOT-113 car performance with LNG before the new rule is allowed to proceed.

The nation's emergency response community, along with an array of federal agencies, have recent experience with the potentially destructive consequences of putting hazardous materials into the wrong containers. In the mid-2010s, crude oil was experiencing a boom similar to the recent production spike of LNG. To meet demand, streams of railcars filled with volatile crude fanned out from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, travelling through parts of the country that had never before been used as oil routes. About a third of those crude-filled cars were the DOT-111, a railcar that the NTSB had deemed “inadequate” for hauling crude as far back as 1991, due to the car’s thin walls and lack of other basic safety protections.

The results were catastrophic. A number of accidents and derailments resulted in environmentally ruinous oil spills, massive fires, evacuations, and in some cases loss of life. None were bigger that the 2013 incident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where a runaway train that included dozens of DOT-111 cars carrying Bakken crude derailed on a curve in the center of town. The resulting fire destroyed most of the downtown, killed 47 people, and burned for days.

In May 2014, the USDOT called the crude oil rail situation an “imminent hazard” to the public and announced an emergency order that required railroads to provide local jurisdictions detailed information about their shipments of crude and urged rail companies to stop using the DOT-111 cars. A year later, the department announced a new rule that phased out DOT-111 cars entirely for use in crude and ethanol shipments. No DOT-111 car has carried crude oil in North America since 2018.

In a broader sense, high-profile events like Lac Megantic served as warnings to public officials and emergency response agencies that the nation’s so-called “energy renaissance” could impact their towns and cities in unexpected ways. “Issues that have been dealt with for decades in the oil belt were showing up in areas of the country that didn’t have that heritage or knowledge,” said Gregory Noll, a HAZMAT expert and member of the technical committee for NFPA 472, Standard for Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents.

Nowhere was that gap more apparent than in small communities. In 2014, the federal government, the railroads, and associations such as the International Association of Fire Fighters and the National Volunteer Fire Council realized that these small fire departments needed to be brought up to speed quickly on the properties of the crude oil moving through their jurisdictions and to prepare for a possible incident. A meeting including dozens of stakeholder groups was held at the National Fire Academy, and a plan was hatched to address the firefighter training issue. Mostly through grants, the fire service organizations, in partnership with the railroads and the federal government, developed a multi-pronged approach to reach firefighters, including online learning portals and classroom trainings that were offered across the country through various fire associations.

Rick Edinger, a career firefighter and the chair of the NFPA 472 technical committee, sees more than a few parallels between the awareness campaign around crude and what’s needed for LNG. If LNG is soon transported by rail in large quantities, he said, “We can take lot of those same training and development models that we used for crude, adapt them, and push them out to responders for LNG. That model could apply to whatever the new hazard is.”

That includes a crash course in the railcars that may be used for LNG transport. Breaches in the small fleet of DOT-113 cars may be rare, but when they do happen there seem to be few good options for responders, other than getting people out of harm’s way. According to a 2018 PHMSA report, any breach of the inner tank “will most likely result in the loss of the entire contents of the tank … Response and mitigation techniques beyond evacuation for breaches in cryogenic tank cars do not exist or are impractical during a derailment scenario.”

The two known breaches, in rural Kansas in 2011 and Louisiana in 2014, led to about 124,000 gallons of ethylene and 47,000 gallons of argon to escape, respectively. There were no reported fatalities.” —J.R.

Top photograph: AP/Wide World