Oil transport by rail carries risks in Arkansas 

Little Rock, Conway, Pine Bluff along transport routes.

click to enlarge QUEBEC EXPLOSION: A runaway train carrying crude oil exploded last July in Canada, killing 47 people image
  • Sûreté du Québec
  • QUEBEC EXPLOSION: A runaway train carrying crude oil exploded last July in Canada, killing 47 people.

Arkansas is sensitive when it comes to crude oil, thanks to the estimated 210,000 gallons of it that spread through a Mayflower neighborhood when a crack in ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline sent a gusher up through two feet of soil. Arkansans even know how to pronounce PHMSA, the agency that regulates the transport of oil and other hazardous materials.

Crude is also shipped by train, and just since last July, there have been these accidents: A runaway train explosion in July in Quebec that killed 47 people. The derailment and explosion of 11 oil cars in Alabama in November, an accident that witnesses said sent flames 300 feet into the sky. A train collision in Casselton, N.D., in December that required the evacuation of the entire town. The derailment in January of a train carrying oil through New Brunswick, Canada, causing the evacuation of 45 homes. These incidents, the fact that oil transport by train has increased exponentially in the past few years and concern that the tanker cars the oil is carried in are unsafe, has put a national spotlight on safety issues.

As it happens, crude oil is transported through Arkansas on Union Pacific lines that crisscross the state, running through Conway, Little Rock and Pine Bluff; on Burlington Northern Santa Fe in Northeast Arkansas, and likely on Kansas City Southern in Southwest Arkansas, though that could not be confirmed by press time. Almost certainly the cars carried by those trains — which, as common carriers, are required to transport the oil — are DOT-111 tank cars, which railroads and safety advocates say are inadequate to transport oil safely.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the American Association of Railroads have recommended to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) that it enact stricter tank car construction regulations, such as requiring thicker, more puncture-resistant steel shells and head shields, valve changes and additional protection on the top of the cars.

Finding out how much oil passes through Arkansas is problematic. The names of the companies that ship it are proprietary, according to Raquel Espinoza, a spokesman for UP. However, Gonzalez was able to provide these statistics: In 2013 nationwide, UP shipped 163,000 car loads of crude, which happened to be an increase of 35 percent from the year before, thanks to the boom in oil production in the Bakken Shale of North Dakota and Montana. Union Pacific picks up tank cars from other carriers — Canadian Pacific and BNSF — in Missouri for transport to El Dorado and St. James, La. El Dorado, the home of a Lion Oil refinery, received nearly 8,500 carloads in 2013. Each tank car carries about 30,000 gallons of crude oil, Espinoza said.

Espinoza said Union Pacific works with first responders along rail lines and coordinators at the Arkansas Emergency Management Department on what to do if there is an accident involving hazardous materials. One of those emergency managers is Shelia McGhee, who is coordinator for Faulkner County.

"It's a concern especially now since we dealt with the crude oil pipeline rupture in Mayflower; we have hands-on experience now," McGhee said. "Rail has always been a big concern to me because it runs through the heart of our community, Conway, the home of three colleges."

McGhee has attended two rail car emergency sessions, one sponsored by UP and another by TTCI, a hazardous materials training facility in Pueblo, Colo. She said that the Faulkner County emergency planning commission will discuss the handling of hazardous materials when it meets in March and that a quarterly meeting she has with Fire Department chiefs in April will do a "table top" train derailment exercise with a hazardous materials coordinator from UP.

Because Conway and Mayflower's first responders — their fire departments — worked on the Pegasus leak, "I think we would be a step ahead of people that have never dealt with crude oil. ... We have an understanding of how to deal with it," McGhee said. "I feel comfortable we could handle" an oil car emergency, she said.

The Department of Transportation put out a warning in January that crude from the Bakken shale seems to be more flammable than oil from other sources and urged shippers to test the oil for gases that could be removed to make transport safer. A PHMSA rule requires cars that carry Bakken crude to be labeled as such.

Only about 30 percent of tank cars have been built to the higher standard that NTSB and the American Association of Railroads has recommended the government implement; the remaining 70 percent, or 92,000 cars, are of the older, more fragile design, according to the AAR. The NTSB has been pushing for the changes since 2011, after a car carrying propane exploded. The Railway Supply Institute, which represents car manufacturers, says retrofitting the DOT-111s will be expensive, time-consuming and put a crimp in transport from the Bakken Shale.

There is no reason, says Peter Goelz, a former manager at the National Transportation Safety Board who is now a regulatory advocacy lobbyist, to assume that oil moved by pipeline is safer. "Even in the worst disaster, in trains, we're talking about gallons and in pipelines talking about barrels." A barrel contains 42 gallons of oil.

Trains, however, run through cities; rerouting oil trains around large cities has been suggested as another safety measure — one the railroad industry doesn't find feasible.

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