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Smoke rises from a number of cars that derailed and exploded from a train carrying crude oil in Aliceville, in western Alabama, early November 8, 2013, as pictured in this still image taken from video courtesy of WBMA/abc3340.com.

Communities ramp up equipment, training for rail oil accidents

Eight trailers with special floating booms to absorb spills from a train are positioned in towns along the Mississippi River, from Red Wing to the Quad Cities of Illinois

Three more will be added soon.

They’re a symbol of the preparations being taken in case of a spill from the millions of gallons of crude oil that’s been moving on rails through southeastern Minnesota, especially along the Mississippi River from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota.

During the last few years, major oil spills, explosions and fires, that caused 47 deaths, around the country have boosted concern about the volatility of Bakken crude oil and the prevalence of old, inadequate rail tankers that carry it by train.

In May 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring trains carrying Bakken crude oil to give state emergency response officials more information about the shipments.

The increase in crude oil transportation by train has leaped up from virtually nothing several years ago to 48 million tons annually nationwide, and it’s ramped up interest in the equipment and training.

“They didn’t just get on board since the oil boom,” said Darwyn Tri, refinery superintendent for ADM in Red Wing. “It made the awareness go up.”

His company, which produces linseed oil in Red Wing, and other groups were doing safety drills before crude oil trains began coming through because there were chances of spills or other disasters from other sources, he said.

ADM’s plant in downtown Red Wing is one of the places where thousands of feet of special floating booms are located so they can be quickly deployed in case of a spill from any source, not just railroads. The trailer also has some absorbent pads to soak up spills, Tri said.

ADM is one of the partners in Red Wing Community Awareness Emergency Response, which includes two railroads, the U.S. Coast Guard, the city of Red Wing, Pierce and Goodhue counties, Xcel Energy and other groups.

Cities with trailers loaded with booms include Red Wing, Lake City and Winona, Tri said. Three more trailers are expected to be added later this year or early next year, said Andy Cummings, a spokesman for Canadian Pacific Railroad, which operates tracks along the Minnesota side of the river.

Related: Explosions put Bakken crude oil on state rail radar

Three of the existing trailers were donated by CP and five by the Coast Guard, he said. They and the Coast Guard also teach local first responders, especially firefighters, how to effectively deploy the booms in case of a spill into water, he said.

“We have a stake in protecting the river” because CP workers also live in those river towns and recreate on the river, Tri said.

Cummings said the railroad doesn’t give out data on how many oil trains are coming, and when, for security reasons. But data on what’s in the trains is shared with local responders in case of a spill. Also, placards on the sides of each tanker tell what’s inside so local people know what they’re up against in case of an emergency.

He cautioned that not all tankers are holding crude. “Railroads haul everything we use in our personal and professional lives every day,” he said. Some materials are dangerous, others aren’t.

The Association of American Railroads said the industry hauled 1.85 billion tons of goods last year, with crude accounting for 48 million tons, which is less than 3 percent. The railroads carried 160 million to 180 million tons of chemicals, too.

Besides the boom trailers, the railroad also has safety experts on call 24/7 to educate people and help at the scene of any crash or spill, Cummings said.

They were on the CP staff before the big jump in use of rail to haul Bakken crude, he said.

The railroad sees safety as its top priority because it’s better to prevent accidents than respond to spills. “Railroads are the safest way to move dangerous goods over land,” Cummings said. Of all shipments of dangerous goods by rail, 99.997 percent get to their destination without incident, he said.

CP is also calling for owners of rail cars to get safer cars, he said. The company doesn’t own any cars but because it’s a common carrier, has to haul any load that meets requirements, he said.

The American Petroleum Institute said safer next-generation tank cars began being built in 2011 and now make up 40 percent of the crude oil tank car fleet. By the end of this year, that will rise to 60 percent, it said.

Another group that has experts to help in case of a spill is the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Sam Brungardt, a MPCA spokesman, said the agency’s job isn’t so much to work on a big spill itself, but to advise those who are working on one, such as environmental contractors, about what to do, he said,

The agency has emergency response teams at regional headquarters who also help in that role, he said. They might be able to deal with some smaller spills but need the contractors for bigger ones, Brungardt said. They respond to any spill that might damage the environment or public health.

Because of so much more oil being hauled, railroads were directed to share their emergency response plans with the MPCA. They were due July 1. The agency is going through them now to determine if there are any deficiencies, Brungardt said.

If there was a spill, the MPCA might often advise firefighters to let it burn, he said. “Just the very heat generated by the fire would not allow anybody to come near it to put it out,” he said. The next advice would be to evacuate the immediate area, he said.

Because of the big increase in oil trains, “I think we are better prepared now” to handle all kinds of emergencies, he said.

This article was written by John Weiss from Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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