Pick Your Poison? Not Really
PLATTSBURGH, NY - 9/6/2014
It's not just flaming Bakken crude oil burning people alive we should worry about.
The Oil Train Community Forum held in the City Hall Auditorium Thursday evening, 8/28/2014, focused mainly on the potential dangers of Bakken crude oil being transported via rail through the North Country. And for good reason. The explosive substance is being shipped in tank cars — up to 120 at a time — not intended when built to safely haul such material.
On 6/6/2013 a runaway train derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, its shipment of Bakken crude exploding with fiery blasts. 45 people were confirmed dead with five missing, presumably dead.
After the forum wrapped up I spoke with one of the panelists, Eric Day, the Director of Clinton County Office of Emergency Services, about other hazardous materials being shipped via the Canadian Pacific (CP) rail lines. He is involved with the training of emergency responders to deal with hazmat events.
Eric explained: "Crude oil — although there are a lot of cars of it in a train — there is a lot of other bad stuff that moves through here everyday and has for years."
On the list:
-- Chlorine. Eric: "Chlorine gas is moved through here now and then, not too often. We got training on those wrecks, kits to seal leaks on chlorine cars."
One incident that shows the great danger with a chlorine tanker accident occurred in Graniteville, South Carolina on 1/6/2005. According to the accident report published by the National Transportation Safety Board chlorine gas was released after the chlorine tanker was breached. Nine people including the engineer died from inhalation of the lethal gas.
-- Ethanol. Eric said that as a burn hazard it is probably the same as Bakken crude, also having a low flash point. "It burns invisibly, you can't see the smoke, you don't see the flames because it is an alcohol." On the environmental side if there is a spill ethanol floats on water and will evaporate. It's not as damaging as a crude oil spill.
But ethanol still can be explosive and deadly. An Associated Press article published 6/20/2009 reported on a derailment involving a Canadian National Railway Company (CNRC) train in Rockford, Illinois that resulted in a fiery blast that killed one woman who had been just sitting in her car at a crossing, waiting for the train to pass. She died while running away. Three people who also fled from the car were hospitalized after being burned from flaming ethanol.
CNRC was nailed with a lawsuit, ordered to pay a total sum of $36 million in damages, according to an article dated 8/18/2011 at WIFR.com. CNRC was found negligent because it had been warned by the Winnebago County (Rockford) 911 center of a washout on the tracks 20 minutes before the derailment. The engineer ignored water conditions and sped up instead of slowing down.
|Eric Day, Director of CC Office of Emergency Services, shares information on hazmat issues during the Oil Train Community Forum.|
-- Anhydrous ammonia. Eric said that this substance moves through in small quantities compared to Bakken crude so the potential for an accident and disaster is not as great. "When it escapes it becomes gaseous, there is a potential for a plume." Depending upon factors such as wind and temperature anhydrous ammonia could affect an area up to a quarter mile.
The site Anhydrous Ammonia Health Information reveals that a high dose exposure can result in coughing and choking — and even death from chemical burns to the lungs.
-- Propane. This one is could be really scary, said Eric. "There are propane cars rolling through here all the time." He continued: "From watching trains [as a train buff/railfan] it's not uncommon to see ten to twelve propane cars hooked together in a train. That's not a 120 of them [like the Bakken crude trains] but I can tell you if one of those babies blows up it leaves a crater and depending on how the whole incident occurs a car might become a missile, it might fly a ways."
On 2/12/1974 there was a derailment near Oneonta, NY in which one propane car split open, the escaping gas igniting. According to the Railroad Accident Report published by the National Transportation Safety Board: "Four of the remaining tank cars ruptured about 30 minutes after the derailment. The ensuing explosions and fire injured 54 firemen and members of the press."
So what should I do, I asked Eric, if I hear a derailment on the railroad tracks less than 40 feet away from my back door?
He replied: "Don't go out to see what happened. Go the other way... Don't stop to collect $200." (OK, so Eric's easygoing and likes to joke a bit.) He added there was no time to gather a lot of personal possessions, just grab your car keys and wallet if they're readily available. If your wallet is upstairs, forget it, just run.
Of course, maybe running away would be just fanning the flames.