WyoFile Energy Report

Wyoming emergency managers heavily rely on railroads to respond to derailments

— December 31, 2013

You might be surprised, in this era of extra emphasis on safety, that your local emergency management officials know about as much about what’s rolling through town on trains as you do.

Dustin Bleizeffer
Dustin Bleizeffer

“I think if people knew what was rolling through on the railroad cars, they wouldn’t want to live near the railroad, quite honestly,” Converse County Emergency Management Coordinator Russ Dalgarn told WyoFile.

In light of the BNSF Railway oil tanker train disaster one mile outside of Casselton, North Dakota, on Monday afternoon, I thought I’d quiz local emergency management coordinators about the potential for such an event, and the response, should something similar happen in Wyoming.

Dalgarn, who works in a county with some of the heaviest coal train traffic in the nation, and where trains roll through the middle of Douglas, said he and other local emergency responders have no way of knowing what’s being shipped through the community.

 Wyoming is home to busy industrial train traffic. But local emergency management coordinators know little about what's going through towns on rail. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
Wyoming is home to busy industrial train traffic. But local emergency management coordinators know little about what’s going through towns on rail. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

“I don’t look at it any different than what semis are hauling through town,” said Dalgarn. “There’s no way companies can share that information all of the time.” Dalgarn added that in his five years as emergency management coordinator, BNSF has responded to all train derailments, requiring little assistance from local response teams.

Standard procedure, whether it’s a train derailment or semi crash, is to drive to the scene, keep your distance, get out the binoculars and read any visible placards to determine what chemicals might be involved.

“We have haz-mat (hazardous materials) teams throughout our system, and we also work on an ongoing basis to train emergency service personnel,” Matt Jones, spokesman for BNSF Railway, told WyoFile.

Wyoming’s industrial train traffic is not insignificant. The Union Pacific line, along the state’s I-80 corridor in the south, is a main transcontinental route for everything from coal to chemicals to department store-bound televisions. In the northeast portion of the state, UP and BNSF Railway run upwards of 75 loaded coal trains daily — in addition to cargo that includes chemicals and various merchandise.

David King, coordinator, Campbell County Emergency Management Agency.
David King, coordinator, Campbell County Emergency Management Agency.

David King is emergency management coordinator in Wyoming’s king-of-coal Campbell County — the nation’s predominant coal supplier. He said the region is listed among railroads as Class A, meaning “anything can go through.”

“What I understand is BNSF has reduced the number of hazardous material (payloads) they do carry through our rail-line so they can reduce the potential for a long-term shutdown (if there is an accident),” King told WyoFile.

In Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, coal traffic dominates. BNSF has a special response team in place in Gillette to quickly clean up derailments and keep trains moving, based upon the urgency of keeping upwards of 400 million tons of coal per year flowing nonstop from the basin to coal-fired power plants in some 36 states.

“If we have something (a delay) here, there’s a ripple effect all the way to Texas,” King said.

In 2005, when there were back-to-back train derailments (caused by buildup of coal dust) on the Powder River Basin main line heading south, the delay caused utilities across the nation to eat into their stockpiles, leaving some of them within days of running low on fuel and dimming lights.

So what of human safety in relation to train traffic in Wyoming? Emergency managers say they work closely with the railroads’ own response teams. They still may know “nothing” about what’s being railed across Wyoming prairies and through our towns, and the response begins with peering through binoculars, hoping to glean vital information from what placards might be visible in the wreckage.

“We have oil tankers coming through town (Douglas) everyday,” said Dalgarn, noting that the Powder River Basin oil play continues to grow larger, and the industry continues to expand oil-to-rail load out systems.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on January 7, 2014 to correct the spelling of Russ Dalgarn.

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. He has written about Wyoming’s energy industries for 15 years. You can reach him at (307) 577-6069 or (307) 267-3327, or email dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Speaking of railway safety, BNSF Railway announced today it has identified the Powder River Division as having the best overall safety record on the BNSF system for 2013. It’s annual “Safety Bell” awards went to:

    — Best Overall Safety Record on the BNSF Network: Powder River Division
    — Best Safety Record Among Transportation Employees: Powder River Division
    — Best Mechanical Frequency: (tie) Lincoln Diesel Shop and Corwith (Chicago) Locomotive
    — Best Engineering Frequency: Telecommunications
    — Best Rail Equipment Incidents Ranking (based on derailment statistics): Northwest Division

    “Employees in these work teams, through their continued commitment to safety and willingness to approach each other about safety, demonstrate that our safety vision of working injury- and accident-free can be achieved,” Mark Schulze, BNSF vice president, Safety, Training and Operations Support, said in a prepared statement.

    — Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile editor-in-chief

  2. Chemical companies are working to deliver dangerous materials by pipeline to next-door customers. Some materials (like chlorine) need also to be delivered to small, widespread use like city water systems. In this North Dakota case, what we are seeing is temporary rail shipments of hydrocarbons brought on by chainging patterns of crude oil production. It takes a long time (with all levels of approval) to build safer and less expensive pipelines.

  3. Gosh darn it, I wish I hadn’t misspelled Russ’s name. Thanks for the heads up on that, David. My sincere apologies to Russ.

    As for the availability of information about a train’s cargo in the event of a derailment, crash and/or fire; no doubt the railroad itself and local emergency management coordinators are usually equipped with the information and resources to respond appropriately — as they often do. The premise I worry about is a large-scale disaster such as an explosion and oil tanker or chemical fire near a populated area. How quickly can communities respond in terms of evacuation and informing local health officials about potential exposures?
    — Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile editor-in-chief

  4. Dustin…two comments on your story. The first and most important…you got Russ’s name correct in your first reference in the second paragraph…then consistently misspelled it from the fourth graph on. I’d bet it’s not the first time people have mangled his name over the years…but wow…talk about a mental slip translating to your keyboard!

    Secondly…the premise of the story seemed to be that for some reason Emergency Managers don’t know what’s on trains…and that’s bad. You did leave out my comment that the information is available. Each train carries a printed listing of what’s on each car, and the railroad can and does provide that listing, or if it’s not available because the engine is not accessible…they can tell responders at the scene via phone, or can tell our dispatch which can radio the information to the scene, what is in each and every car. Yep…that list can be incorrect if someone has switched a couple of cars around or worse yet, lied on their paperwork…but the world is not a 100% perfect place and I suspect it never will be.

    In almost every initial response, emergency responders don’t know exactly what is inside a structure, a semi-truck, etc…but part of the training and preparation is to know how to size-up the situation and identify the dangers quickly as they go about containing and controlling it. Ask any firefighter what the worst potential hazmat situation there is in almost every community…you’ll probably be surprised to find out how high on the list a “routine” fire in your local hardware store, Walmart or Kmart would rank. When all the chemicals in the small quantity containers sold in that store start getting OUT of their containers due to fire and start mixing…it becomes a true witches brew to deal with. And we won’t even begin to consider what combinations you and I and every other person might have stored (often quite improperly) in our garage or workshop.

    The lesson to be learned is to do everything you can to reduce the potential for these emergencies to occur in the first place, to have proper plans, procedures and properly prepared and equipped responders in place, and to train and practice on a regular basis…and NOT meet for the first time at 2 a.m. 30 miles from town in sub-zero weather in 30 mph winds and a snowstorm.

  5. The most dangerous materials in tank cars are not crude oil. The most dangerous are you inhalation hazards. Chlorine Gas, Anhydrous Ammonia, hydrogen Sulfide. Throw in a couple of liquefied Propane cars and you have a tragedy. Most derailments are caused by trains running on sub standard rail. Railroads do not keep up maintenance on their rails to save money. They stretch their Maintenance of Way employees to thin to save a buck or two. I would also agree that most people have no clue what is rolling down the rails. The disaster in Canada was the result of a company cutting costs and running a train with single employee crews. Yes the guy messed up big time but, another crew member may have saved lives. Can you imagine trains running through Wyoming with only 1 person on that train. That is what the railroads ultimately want. The wreck in the Bronx was 1 engineer alone on the lead locomotive. My last point is that crude oil tank cars are worthless in a derailment. They are DOT 111 type cars that puncture to easily in a derailment. Thank God that other tank cars have better protection. NO SINGLE EMPLOYEE TRAIN CREWS.

  6. While we seldom think about it, most Wyoming towns have some exposure to risk of railroad spills. In the year 2000, census data showed over 80 percent of people in the state lived in towns developed along railroad lines. Trucks on Wyoming highways also carry sulfuric acid and radioactive materials. For a series of articles on chemical transport and spills, see this hazardous materials project at the Investigative Reporters and Editors website: http://ire.org/nicar/database-library/databases/hazardous-materials/