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Derailments spark concerns about safety of transporting oil

Updated: April 8, 2016 - 1:48 pm

Risky Rails — a special Journals’ report examining oil train safety. Find more stories at southwestjournal.com/risky-rails.

As it passed through the western Minnesotan countryside, a mile-long train from Alberta, Canada left the tracks en route to Chicago.

Fourteen of the train’s 94 cars derailed, causing 15,000 gallons to leak outside the small town of Parkers Prairie, Minn.

The derailment, just two years ago, became the first major spill of the modern crude-by-rail transit boom.

The spill, the state’s last major oil train derailment, is just one of many in the past few years that have signaled a call for emboldened public safety efforts to prevent future disasters.

The United States’ oil production has surged as a result of the fracking boom in North Dakota. Trains shipped approximately 50 times more crude oil in January 2015 than January 2010, the Energy Information Administration reported this year. Due to a limited pipeline capacity, 70 percent of crude oil reaches refineries by rail, according to American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.

And with more trains and more oil, came more derailments.

On March 5, a 105-car BNSF train derailed near Galena, Ill., with 21 cars spilling up to 630,000 gallons of Bakken oil.

On the same day, on the other side of the Great Lakes, a 101-car train derailed near Hornepayne, a rural town in Ontario, Canada.

However, the most significant derailment this year came on Feb. 16 in Mount Carbon, W.Va.

A 109-car train carrying Bakken oil caught fire and exploded. A home was destroyed — its owner, the only one reported injured in an oil train derailment this year, was treated for smoke inhalation — and fires still burned in the city a day later.

Just two days earlier, a similar scene unfolded in a remote area near Timmins, Ontario, when a 100-car train derailed, spilling Bakken oil and catching fire.

The worst of these crude oil derailments came on July 6, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the U.S.-Canada border.  A runaway train barreled into downtown Lac-Megantic carrying Bakken oil. Several tankers exploded, killing 47 people and leveling 40 buildings, making it Canada’s deadliest rail accident in 150 years.

Canadian authorities estimate the accident leaked 1.5 million gallons of oil. For comparison, U.S. railroads spilled a combined 800,000 gallons between 1975 and 2012. In 2013, the number increased to 1.15 million gallons, more than the past four decades combined.

These high-profile incidents are very uncommon compared to total rail traffic — for example, 99.99 percent of shipments arrived in 2013 without incident despite record spills from rail — but accidents are increasing. Records from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration show there were far more rail accidents resulting in the leaking of crude oil in 2014 than any year since record keeping began in 1975.

And government officials expect more derailments the future. A 2014 U.S. Department of Transportation report predicts an average of 10 oil train derailments each year for the next two decades. There have already been four high-profile oil train derailments in the United States this year, in addition to several in Canada.

Statistically, most of these derailments have occurred in rural areas, but local officials fear the existence of oil trains, including some carrying Bakken oil, in Minneapolis and St. Paul could lead to a derailment in the metro area. Minnesota neighbors the country’s second-largest oil-producing state, North Dakota, and Canada, the top exporter of crude oil to the United States.

If any derailment hit a populated area, hundreds of people could be killed and there could be more than $6 billion in damages, the DOT report said.

Lawmakers are looking to prevent such an incident, but the causes of many derailments are unclear, and sometimes there are multiple factors leading to a disaster. In the case of Lac-Megantic, Canadian authorities found 18 factors that led to the accident, from ill-prepared brakes to oversight from the rail company and government officials.

Many derailments are still under investigation years later. A spokesman with Canadian Pacific, whose train derailed outside Parkers Prairie, Minn., said the cause of the 2013 incident is still part of an ongoing investigation.

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By the numbers:

— 10 derailments are expected each year, on average // Source: Department of Transportation

— 4 oil train derailments in the United States so far this year. // Source: Journals reporting

— The volume of crude oil shipped by rail grew 50-fold between 2015 and 2010 (from 630,000 barrels in January 2010 to 33.7 million barrels in January 2015) // Source: Energy Information Administration

— More crude oil spilled in the United States in 2013 than in the previous four decades combined. (1.15 million gallons spilled in 2013, 1975 to 2012 saw just 800,000 combined) // Source: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration