Fire Departments Poorly Prepared for Oil Train Fires
As trains hauling flammable liquids, including crude oil, are increasing in number in North America, fire departments are becoming increasingly concerned about their ability to effectively deal with the massive fires and explosions that result from derailments and spills. The situation is becoming particularly hazardous as the number of derailments is increasing. The Chicago Tribune wrote yesterday, “The roster of fiery derailments has steadily grown along with the flow of volatile crude oil from the booming Bakken fields of North Dakota, Montana and Canada.”
The Tribune article focused on Chicago-area fire departments, indicating, “Few Chicago-area fire departments have enough firefighting foam and equipment to respond effectively to the roaring infernos seen near Rockford and elsewhere in recent years when multiple railroad tank cars carrying flammable liquids derail and explode…So-called unit trains, rolling pipelines with more than a hundred tank cars hauling millions of gallons of crude oil, have become game changers for emergency responders, posing new threats and requiring updated safety strategies, experts say.” Chicago-area fire departments say more oil trains, often referred to as “Bomb Trains”, run more frequently through Chicago suburbs since Canadian National Railway purchased the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway in 2009.
Many Illinois firefighters remember the disastrous Canadian National Railway derailment in Cherry Valley near Rockford in 2009 where 19 tank cars loaded with ethanol derailed and erupted into a massive fireball, burning one woman to death, causing her 19-year-old pregnant daughter to lose her baby, and injuring about 10 others. Firefighters had about 400 gallons of foam on hand and more on the way but it wasn’t enough to put out the roaring fire. Firefighters could do little but let the blaze burn itself out and adopt a “defensive position” a half mile from the fire which burned for 9 hours. About 600 homes had to be evacuated.
As the number of oil trains skyrockets, firefighters across North America are becoming more fearful. In the U.S. alone, crude shipments have grown from 9,500 tank car loads in 2008 to more than 400,000 in 2013, based on data from the Association of American Railroads. “It’s truly the worst-case scenario for a fire department, and it’s not the kind of thing you can staff for or have enough equipment for”, said Jim Arie, Barrington’s Fire Chief. “We could do all the training in the world and have all the equipment in the world, but if one of those trains comes off the rails and creates an issue in a very densely populated area, our exposure would be very significant”, said Aurora Fire Chief Jim Lehman. “Our ability to deal with an incident of that magnitude would be very taxing.” (Both Barrington and Aurora are in Illinois.)
See CN Railway Derailments, Other Accidents and Incidents for hundreds of additional examples of CN derailments, and this link for the many risks associated with shipping oil and other hazardous liquids by rail.