By Sharon Dunn | The Greeley Tribune, Colorado
Six cars of a 100-car Union Pacific crude oil train derailed Friday west of LaSalle, spilling a small amount of oil that was bound for New York.
Crews from Union Pacific Railroad spent their Friday afternoon working to clear the derailment that leaked a small amount of oil into a ditch.
The train, loaded in Windsor with Niobrara crude, derailed about 8 a.m., said Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis. No one was injured and a cause wasn’t immediately known. Regular road traffic was not disturbed.
“Only rail traffic is affected,” Davis said from the scene of the derailment near Colo. 394 and Weld County Road 33. “It’s on our line that doesn’t see much use. It’s off the main line that goes through Greeley. It’s not impacting operations that greatly.”
Only one of the six cars was leaking crude, but the spill was contained to a ditch off the roadway, and did not threaten the nearby South Platte River, Davis said. Davis and other officials said they couldn’t estimate how much crude was spilled.
An Environmental Protection Agency official, however, told the Denver Post the car was leaking at a rate of 20 gallons to 50 gallons per minute. This rail car was carrying 28,000 gallons. At the lower spill rate of 20 gallons per minute, it would take 23 hours for the entire car to empty its contents, but crews were able to put vacuums directly on the leak to pump it directly from the car, said Stephanie Bissell Serkhoshian, director of corporate communications for Union Pacific. A second vacuum truck worked to recover the oil that had already spilled, she said.
EPA’s on-scene coordinator Craig Myers told the Denver Post that Union Pacific got lucky on this spill.
“So far, fairly minimal damage,” Myers told the Post. Five other cars were on their sides.
The spill prompted an immediate response from Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, citing his concerns the industry should beef up regulations for the rail cars handling crude.
“Trains hauling explosive fuels pose serious dangers to residents and businesses across Colorado. While we are fortunate there was not an explosion, this incident in Weld County shows why I have been fighting so hard to have the U.S. Department of Transportation update its safety regulations,” Udall said in a prepared statement.
In a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation in January, Udall stated rail tankers carry 11 percent of the nation’s oil, up 40-fold in five years. “Yet, only about 15,000 of the nation’s 94,000 rail tankers carrying oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids meet puncture resistance and other safety standards necessary to avoid the kinds of spills and explosions that have occurred during derailments in the last year,” the letter stated.
The federal Department of Transportation issued an emergency order this week, requiring all railroads operating trains containing large amounts of Bakken crude oil (from a prolific field in North Dakota) to notify State Emergency Response Commissions about the operation of these trains through their states.
The emergency order requires each railroad operating trains containing more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil, or approximately 35 tank cars, in a particular state, to provide the SERC notification regarding the expected movement of such trains through the counties in that state. Bakken crude has been considered to be more flammable, according to some news accounts.
The order comes on the heels of some highly publicized spills, train derailments and explosions. In recent weeks, an oil train derailed in Lynchburg, Va. It spilled 30,000 gallons into the James River. Last year an oil train exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. In December, an oil train hit some derailed cars in North Dakota, resulting in an explosion. No one was hurt.
Davis said in his 30 years with Union Pacific, he hasn’t seen any other derailments on this particular line.
Davis said the rail cars used to transport the crude in Friday’s derailment have been in service for “some time.” In the past, they carried cotton-seed oil and nut oil, “anything that’s not pressurized.” “I understand there are cases now where there’s going to be some stiffening up of the cars that carry crude,” Davis said. “Since crude is a fairly new product over the last several years that is more and more transported by rail, there’s still science that’s looking at the chemical components” of the crude.
The New York Times reported the Department of Transportation is working on safety standards for the cars, many of which have been used since the 1960s.
By mid-afternoon, the railroad had brought in roughly seven semi-tankers to transport the crude from the derailed cars, and two vacuum trucks, about the size of a typical semi tanker truck, to suck up the spilled oil.
Heavy equipment was standing by to upright the cars once they were drained of their contents. And lights to work through the night also were brought in. He said about 80 feet of track will have to be repaired, as well, and he wasn’t immediately sure of the damage to the rail cars. Crews remained on scene through the early evening.
“What our team looks for is usually four things; look at the track structure, human factors, which is how the train was handled. Our mechanical team looks at not only locomotives, but the rail cars. Then there’s an area that takes everything else into consideration, such as weather,” Davis said. The Denver Post reported officials at the scene believed the cause of the derailment was accidental.
Davis said Union Pacific has budgeted $3.9 billion this year on infrastructure improvements, and in the past six years spent $21.6 billion on infrastructure. The improvements, he said, were all to prevent such derailments.
“I think, number one, you have to look at the safety record of rail transportation. It’s very good,” Davis said. “Something like 99.99 percent of all shipments make it to their destination without an incident.”
He added, “For us, we continue to look for ways to even improve on that. A lot of it is infrastructure to prevent derailments.”
The railroad uses track sensors to determine heat and vibrations on the tracks, readings which could be used to determine if a derailment is a possibility.
Colorado State Patrol’s hazardous materials unit cleared the scene almost as quickly as they showed up, said Trooper Josh Lewis. They cleared the scene by 10 a.m., he said.
“They were concerned there was something in the waterway,” Lewis said. “You hear train derailment and oil leaking, it would typically take all kinds of time. But we were cleared within a couple hours.”