WJON In Depth: Oil Trains and St. Cloud’s Risk on the Rails [VIDEO]
ST. CLOUD - In 2013 an oil train derailment killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic Quebec and leveled a downtown overnight.
It was one of the deadliest train derailments in Canadian history, with about six million litres of petroleum crude oil spilled.
The same Bakken Crude Oil passes through backyards in St. Cloud. WJON investigated: Does St. Cloud have a plan in place for an oil train derailment? Is Central Minnesota prepared if an incident were to happen? Can we learn from previous derailments?
St. Cloud's Emergency Plan
St. Cloud authorities have an emergency plan in place and recently presented it in detail to the city council. If an oil train derailed in town and caught fire, authorities would contact you using their Everbridge Notification System, which is a reverse 9-1-1.
"If we had an oil train and there was a leak, we would start an evacuation process," St. Cloud Fire Chief Dean Wrobbel says.
Council member George Hontos played a part in having authorities present the plan to the city last year after hearing community concerns.
"Some of us on the council received some inquires about what are we doing for railroad safety, especially with all the oil coming out of North Dakota."
An oil train fire would be tremendously hard to put out, so the plan calls for the city to contain the blaze.
"We would actually just let it burn if a whole tank car started on fire and we would be in protective actions until we could get enough resources and people in St. Cloud," Wrobbel says.
"We would be working with transportation coordination to help people move from the area, so it would be a fairly complex incident for us and would bring together a lot of people in the community," Stearns County Emergency Management Director Erin Hausauer says.
The immediate goal is to notify residents nearby and evacuate them as quickly as possible. Wrobbel says they would start at a quarter-mile radius from an oil train fire and expand from there.
"For oil trains there's not a lot with the fumes but the smoke would be the big thing, so we would want to see which way the smoke was blowing and evacuate further from that point."
According to Hausauer, an average of 75 trains go through St. Cloud every day. About a half-dozen are oil trains.
BNSF Railway is one of North America's leading freight companies, with a network spanning 32,500 miles in 28 states (including Minnesota) and three Canadian provinces. They serve over 30 crude-by-rail loading facilities and a single unit train can haul 81,000 barrels of crude oil.
Officials say there’s little concern for a derailment and BNSF Rail adds that 99.99 percent of their trains reach their destination safely.
BNSF spokeswoman Amy Mcbeth says in Minnesota, they have invested over $550 million in their network over the last three years.
"This means that we are continually renewing rail and maintaining our physical plant so we keep operating safely."
The rail industry follows a 40 mph maximum speed for trains carrying certain levels of hazardous materials in high threat urban areas of over 100,000 people. BNSF says they've reduced the speed further to 35 mph in high-threat urban areas. In other areas, the maximum BNSF operates these trains is 50 mph.
Mcbeth adds that they work with first responders with planning in case an incident does happen.
"Last year in Minnesota, we trained more than 1,000 first responders through community hazmat training sessions and by sending firefighters to specialized crude by rail training at Pueblo, Colorado."
Recent reports also show rail traffic is down this year compared to the last. The rail industry is being impacted by a combination of factors: including low energy prices and the strong dollar.
What Does the State Say?
Oil production has declined recently, but about five to eight oil trains still pass through Minnesota each day.
A 2014 study from MnDOT identified more than 700 miles of train routes carrying Bakken crude oil across Minnesota. The routes have 683 at-grade crossings, each one has the potential risk of a train and vehicle collision, or a train derailment. (Collisions are a top cause for a derailment).
"If a train filled with Bakken oil has an incident such as a derailment, there is a high probability that the oil, a highly volatile hazardous material, would be released in significant volumes," the study says.
Transportation of oil is a fairly new business. It increased from almost no rail transport in 2005 to nine fully loaded crude oil trains from North Dakota each day in 2014.
A Minnesota Department of Public safety report says most counties and cities lack equipment to respond to an oil train incident. Governor Mark Dayton also recently created a new position to oversee rail safety. Dayton appointed Alene Tchourumoff to the new position of State Rail Director, amid growing concerns surrounding rail safety.
On top of this, the U.S. Department of Transportation predicts more than 200 crude and ethanol trains will derail over the next 20 years.
Casselton, North Dakota Avoids Disaster
Casselton is a North Dakota town of just over 2,000 that dodged a bullet in late 2013, when 18 oil cars exploded in a derailment. 450,000 gallons of crude oil was released during the incident. Explosions could be seen for 20 miles.
"In very short order we realized this was very very serious," Sergeant Timothy Briggeman says, he was the second responder on-scene.
"When I left home I could see the heaviest black smoke that you'd ever want to see, it was incredible," Casselton Fire Chief Tim McLean says.
"We started walking down our driveway and one of the train cars exploded, so you got this great big mushroom cloud of flame. We walked back further and another one did it, you could feel it, you could sure feel the tremor of it," Casselton Mayor Lee Anderson says.
According to a FEMA report, the results could have been much worse. The derailment thankfully happened in the countryside, 20 miles west of Fargo, a city of 100,000 people. It was just 1/4 of a mile west of Casselton. The area school, just a little over a mile away, was out for Christmas vacation.
"It would have been a tremendous tragedy if that thing would have been another half mile, it would have totally destroyed everything within a block or two block radius," former mayor Ed McConnell says.
"Other than the fact that the fire department knew what they were doing and had enough sense to stay away from it....you've got to hope you're lucky," Anderson says.
"The railroad is a mechanical thing and mechanical things break down and that could happen in St. Cloud like it happened here," McConnell adds.
Does St. Cloud Have Reason to Worry?
St. Cloud feels they’re prepared with their fire and hazmat crews if the need arises.
"You can never stop it from happening but it's about how you respond. Knowing that our fire department has the skill and training of how to handle an emergency, it made all of us on the council a lot more comforted," Hontos says.
Hausauer says having an emergency plan in place with your family is the best thing you can do to prepare for such a scenario.
"If we have to make that call to ask you to leave your home that you're prepared to do so, regardless if that's a train derailment or something else that could be happening in the community, that you've taken those steps to put yourself and your family into a preparedness strategy."
For more points of view on the Casselton derailment, watch the bonus video below.
-This story was written with information from the Associated Press-