TV-6 Investigates: oil trains

rail tankers

QUAD CITIES (KWQC)  –  (originally posted 8-5-14)  Millions of gallons of crude oil move through our communities every day over railroad tracks. Tracks that cut right through the middle of neighborhoods and right along the Mississippi River, where the Quad Cities gets its drinking water.

TV-6 Investigates has gotten information, released for the first time ever, showing just how much oil is traveling through the QCA. Crude oil is not the only commodity traveling by rail. TV-6 Investigates has reported before on ethanol shipping by rail. Often, the trains are made up of just tank cars. Railroad information shows up to 42 oil trains a week, six a day, travel through Jo Daviess and Carroll Counties.

If an accident happened to one of those trains, area first responders worry they don’t have enough equipment on hand to react to a spill. They’re mobile pipelines, tank cars filled with oil stretching as far as you can see down the track. Those trains carry crude oil from the Bakken oil field in Montana and North Dakota. Fracking has increased oil production there dramatically, but the government has warned Bakken crude may be more flammable than other crude oil. Past accidents have shown these trains’ explosive potential.

An accident on this stretch of track also threatens drinking water. 100 car trains carry over three million gallons of oil. If that spills in the water, a prior TV-6 investigation found no advance warning system exists to detect the oil in the river.

“I think everybody has known for a long time the quantity was up of crude oil,” says Jo Daviess County Haz Mat Team leader Steve Braun.

Braun helps run the haz mat team. It’s made up of volunteer firefighters from across the county and into Wisconsin. They’ve long known about hazardous chemicals coming through, even before oil became big business on the BNSF railroad.

“The railroads have always been a hazard, to start out, there’s always been that challenge for the community, so it’s something we’re always been aware of,” says Braun.

But he says the increasing amounts of oil present a tougher challenge for the team.

“Our capabilities to deal with a major crude oil spill are pretty limited.”

Federal rules make oil shippers and transportation companies responsible for spill cleanup in case of an accident. TV-6 Investigates asked the BNSF railroad hauling all this oil what it has done to prepare for derailments and spills. The railroad declined our request for an on camera interview, but in a statement to TV-6 Investigates, BNSF says, “BNSF has specialized equipment and more than 200 BNSF hazmat responders at locations across our network to address hazmat and crude oil incidents.” BNSF also says it has contractors in place to supplement its company resources.

But a 2010 map shows the nearest company crews to this area are in Galesburg and Chicago. Those cities are two and three hour drives away from Jo Daviess County.

“When you’re looking at rural areas like Jo Daviess, like Grant County (WI), the railroad doesn’t have resources for firefighters in our county,” says Braun.

“They’ve told us that the responsibility to protect the community is our responsibility.”

Braun says his team lacks the large amounts of firefighting foam needed to put out a crude oil fire. The team also lacks enough containment boom to catch a spill, should it get into the Mississippi.

“Those resources as an entire region are still limited.”

BNSF says it has 16 fire fighting foam trailers along its haz mat routes. It has a mapping system to identify the closest emergency responders to an accident. It also offers free training to first responders. Braun says the Jo Daviess County haz mat team is trying to get some people to attend, but it is difficult for volunteers to leave their jobs for long training sessions. He wants someone, either the government or the railroad, to kick in more money for emergency supplies.

“We have only limited quantities and even with the escalated crude oil we’ve got coming through, we have not seen any funding to increase that supply,” says Braun.

As millions of gallons of oil roll right through these communities, right along the Mississippi. The US Department of Transportation just proposed new rules for trains hauling more than 20 cars of flammable liquids like oil and ethanol. The rules include slower speeds, a phase out of older tank cars, and requirements that railroads analyze the routes these trains travel using 27 safety and security measurements.

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