States, industry getting involved in training emergency responders for train derailments, oil spills.


With more oil and gas moving throughout the country every day either by pipelines or trains, emergency responders are trying to find ways to keep up with the booming industry.

“I’m not sure many fire departments are prepared to handle a major rail incident in the center of their community,” says Bruce Roed, a specialist with the Minnesota State Fire Marshal’s office.

Between 2008 and 2013, the number of railcars carrying oil increased from 9,500 to 434,000, nearly doubling just from 2012 to 2013, according to the Association of American Railroads.

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“There is a huge interest in learning more, training more and looking at what additional items of equipment will be needed should an incident happen in a community where you live,” said Greg Wilz, director of the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services in an interview with the Associated Press.

Industry stepping up

One way first responders can prepare for incidents in the oil and gas industry is by help from those in the industry.

The Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program (OOGEEP) has focused on training and educating emergency responders on the unique oilfield situations since 2001. Over the course of the last 13 years, nearly 1,000 firefighters from across Ohio and seven other states have undergone this training, according to Charlie Dixon, training administrator for OOGEEP.

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“While these types of oilfield events are indeed rare, the preparation for such occurrences has proven invaluable,” Dixon says.

Dixon notes that OOGEEP recently received a letter from Carrollton (Ohio) Fire Chief Tom Mesler regarding a fire involving a tank truck loading condensate on a production pad.

“Upon arrival, Chief Mesler, along with his department and mutual aid departments, other agencies and industry representatives encountered a fully involved tank truck with exposures to the storage tank battery,” Dixon says.

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Chief Mesler established a unified command for the fire and with 19 members of his fire department having undergone OOGEEP training, he says the department was able to respond “with proper education and safety.”

The BNSF Railway, which owns most of the railroads in North Dakota and throughout much of Minnesota, is also helping first responders by paying for training for local firefighters in the two states and elsewhere on how to deal with oil train accidents. BNSF had its own derailment in 2013 near Casselton, N.D.

Casselton Fire Chief Tim McLean says he plans to send as many of his crew of volunteer firefighters to the training as he can. The day of the derailment near Casselton, McLean drove to within half a mile of the fire and could go no closer, seeing no chance to fight it.

“You could feel the heat when that mushroom cloud went up in the air,” McLean says. “I was in my pickup running out to start up the command post and you could feel a little warmth through the glass.”

States taking notice

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says that state and federal governments need to take quick action to prevent and respond to oil spills as he cites deadly risks associated with the increased amount of crude oil shipments through his state.

Inslee compares an oil train explosion to a bomb going off and notes that he was concerned that local emergency responders, especially in small communities along the railroad lines, weren’t adequately prepared to respond to incidents.

The study done by the state recommends more railroad inspectors, more money for the state’s oil spill response and prevention program, boosting firefighting and oil spill equipment and ensuring that those who transport oil can pay for cleanup.

“We think it’s appropriate that the industry buck up and be responsible for additional safety requirements,” Inslee says.

Washington collects an oil spill response tax when crude oil and petroleum is received at a marine terminal from a vessel or barge, but that tax isn’t collected when oil is moved by rail or pipeline. Lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to change that in previous sessions.

BNSF Railway notes that it has taken significant steps to improve safety, including training thousands of local emergency responders each year – 600 in Washington alone. It has also staged specialized equipment across its network.

Training taking place

Washington isn’t the only state where first responders are already being trained. In October, nearly 100 emergency responders from federal, state and local agencies in three states spent three days training for a potential large-scale train incident with crude oil spilling from tank cars into the Mississippi River.

On-water drills included the placement of deflection booms designed to divert or contain an oil spill along with mock oiled-wildlife collection and rehabilitation efforts by natural resource managers.

“The energy boom has brought a lot of crude oil in regular proximity to high-value natural resources and refuge areas,” says David Morrison, exercise director of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “One of our tasks as emergency responders is to prepare for the worst by practicing rapid containment and recovery, wildlife protection and habitat preservation.”

The training, conducted near La Crosse, Wis., was organized by the Upper Mississippi Hazardous Spills Coordination Group, a coalition of state and federal agencies with emergency response responsibilities, with support from local governments, private-sector partners and the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association.

According to Dave Hokanson, water-quality program director for the association, about seven unit trains pass through La Crosse County each day carrying up to 21 million gallons of volatile crude oil from the Bakken formation.

While a train derailment could result in an explosion or other urban disaster, this exercise was focused on responding to an environmental disaster.

“Not that those aren’t important things,” Hokanson says. “But we wanted to see what would happen if we had product in the water. We wanted to test our ability to form a unified command, test our ability to deploy booms on the water, evaluate impacts to wildlife and habitat, and test communications.”

In another training exercise held in North Dakota in June, the Department of Emergency Services held a session for emergency responders focused on Bakken oil trains as well.

“The reality is every community really needs to assess what is their level of risk and what the potential hazard could be of something that could be, at some level, catastrophic,” Wilz says. “And ask themselves: If that happens in our community, what can we do, what should be done and should we ask for help above and beyond?”


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