Almost 1.4 million Ohioans live within a half-mile of railroad lines where some of the most-volatile crude oil in North America rolls by each week, a Dispatch analysis has found.
Those people, about 12 percent of the state’s population, are at risk of being forced from their homes should a train hauling crude oil from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota run off the tracks.
About 15 percent of Franklin County’s residents live within that zone, recommended by the U.S. Department of Transportation as the likely evacuation area during a crude-oil train derailment.
Most trains that transport crude oil stay on their tracks, but derailments can be catastrophic.
A Bakken train that derailed in 2013 burst into flames, killing 47 people and destroying most of downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Trains have wrecked in Ontario, as well as in Alabama, Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Virginia, sending trains up in flames, prompting mass evacuations and in some cases, obliterating homes.
A Bakken train derailed in West Virginia last month, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate their homes and spilling oil into the Kanawha River.
That train, run by CSX, almost certainly passed through Columbus. Three CSX tracks that carry crude oil from North Dakota to the East Coast converge in Columbus after passing through Worthington and running between Dublin and Hilliard. Those tracks then head south through Ohio and into West Virginia.
Teresa Mills, program director of the Buckeye Forest Council, said that both rail officials and the oil and gas industry should do more to keep people safe.
“Before they leave the fields, before they pump that oil into a train, they should be required to make that oil less explosive,” Mills said. “And if they can’t transport it without its being so explosive — if the Bakken is so volatile that it can’t be transported without being explosive — then they should leave it in the ground.”
The Bakken shale field stretches over northwestern North Dakota and into Montana and produces some of the most-desirable crude oil in the United States. It’s often less expensive than imported crude. It also requires less refining than other shale oils to be turned into diesel fuel or gasoline.
But the same things that make Bakken crude such a good fuel source also make it highly flammable.
Ohio, with its more than 5,300 miles of tracks, is a key junction between the Bakken region and East Coast oil refineries. Rail lines that carry Bakken crude travel through or near Akron, Cleveland and Toledo as well as through Columbus.
Millions of gallons of Bakken crude come through Ohio each week on trains, according to the reports that railroad companies submit to the state. Those reports show that from 45 million to 137 million gallons of Bakken are moving on Ohio’s railroad tracks every week.
A minimum of 2 million to 25 million gallons per week come through Franklin County alone.
That volume, combined with high-profile derailments, has prompted federal regulators, lawmakers, industrial lobbying groups and environmental nonprofit organizations to pay closer attention to how oil moves on rail lines throughout the country.
“If it could happen in these other places. It could surely happen right here in Ohio,” said Melanie Houston, director of water policy and environmental health for the Ohio Environmental Council, an environmental advocacy group. “It could happen in a rural area, but it could also happen in a highly populated metropolitan area like Columbus.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that trains carrying crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year for the next 20 years. Property damage could top $4 billion, the DOT analysis, completed last summer, found.
The department is preparing new rules on how crude oil is transported on tracks throughout the country. Last year, railroad companies voluntarily agreed to limit oil-train speeds to 40 mph in cities.
Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, a trade group that represents railroad companies, said that organization has lobbied for tougher restrictions on the tanker cars that carry crude oil.
“We believe that every tank car moving crude oil today should be phased out or built to a higher standard,” Greenberg said.
But keeping people along crude-oil shipping lines safe will take a comprehensive approach, said Tom Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute, which represents tank-car owners and manufacturers.
“The tank car is not the silver bullet. You cannot really design a tank car to withstand the derailment forces in a derailment, and so you can’t get the risk down to zero,” Simpson said. “You’v e got to look at the other factors, and that includes derailment prevention and ensuring (that) the materials have the proper packaging, and also educating the emergency-response personnel in the cities and villages along the right of way.”
Franklin County’s emergency responders are trying to learn more about a potential Bakken-crude derailment.
Franklin County Emergency Management and Homeland Security has hired a consultant to study how much and what hazardous material is moving through the county, said Darrel Koerber, the department’s deputy director. That report should be completed in the next few months.
Koerber said people who live near railroad tracks should “be informed about the risks.”
“They should do their own risk assessment of their area so they have that information,” he said. The next step “is to have a plan. Know what you’re going to do in the event of an emergency.”
This article was written by Laura Arenschield from The Columbus Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.