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Rail Safety Analysis Sparks Concern Over Oil Trains

A new analysis of train safety and recent accidents involving spilled crude oil has caught the attention of many Montanans, especially as more trains carrying oil are moving through the state.

That’s because a lot crude moves on our rail lines.

Joe Hanson is well aware of the risk presented by these crude shipments.

"I went to the door and opened it up and it was just this gray, greenish cloud floating in the street. It was really eerie because of the street lights."

That was April 11 of 1996 when 19 Montana Rail Link freight cars derailed near Hanson’s Alberton home. Six of those cars contained hazardous chemicals including chlorine gas.

The spill killed one person and forced the evacuation of over 1,000 Alberton residents for over two weeks.

Hanson says he's now paying close attention to the concerns about trains carrying hazardous shipments.

"To me, you're supposed to make plans for the next time, cause there's going to be a next time," Hanson says.

For Mount Carbon, West Virginia, that "next time" came  last week when a train derailed, spilling millions of gallons of Bakken crude. The wreck triggered a huge explosion and a fire that burned for 5 days, forcing evacuations.

The U.S. Department of Transportation risk analysis predicts derailments involving trains carrying ethanol or crude could happen an average of 10 times annually over the next two decades. It says those wrecks could kill hundreds of people and cause billions of dollars in damage.

Jared Margolis is an attorney for the Portland-based Center for Biological Diversity.

"And when you're talking about 10 of these incidents a year, you're talking about incredible risk of harm to people and the environment. Really, we need a moratorium on oil trains immediately so that we can prevent the next disaster."

BNSF says it currently transports 11 to 16 loaded crude trains every week through Montana.

Representatives of Montana Rail Link declined to say how many oil trains they run through Missoula. Neither company would do an on-tape interview.

An email from a BNSF spokesman says 2014 was the safest year on record for BNSF with the fewest number of mainline derailments and greater than 99 percent hazmat shipments were delivered without incident. The information, however, does not explain the nature of the hazmat shipments that experienced problems.

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for The Association of American Railroads trade group says rail companies are voluntarily lowering train speeds and increasing the rate of track inspections.

"America's rail industry has called for tougher tank car specifications. We support an aggressive retrofit or phase-out program for all existing tank cars moving flammable liquids, including crude oil."

Older tankers are more prone to puncture in an accident. The newer ones are reportedly tougher than those older models, but the tankers involved in last week's explosive oil train disaster in West Virginia were those newer tankers.

The federal government recommends updating even those newer models with thicker hulls and improved braking systems.

AAR's Ed Greenberg says rail companies don't own the cars they haul. Under federal law, if a shipper provides a railroad with a tanker that meets current safety standards, the rail company must use that tanker. Greenberg characterizes the DOT's risk analysis of potential future oil train derailments as a set of "assumptions".

"We haven't had a chance to analyze it and we're not aware of how they arrived at those conclusions," Greenberg said. "We would hesitate to comment on assumptions. It's our position that there's no basis for this speculation."

Center for Biological Diversity Attorney, Jared Margolis, says there's plenty of reason to take the DOT analysis seriously. His organization recently issued a report showing 25 million Americans live within a mile of where oil trains travel. It also says these trains endanger critical wildlife habitat and thousands of miles of rivers and streams.

"We need to think about whether there are ways to reduce our uses through efficiency and through alternative energy uses. Those don't happen overnight, however we can make the decision right away that we're not going to allow activities to take place that do clearly put us at risk of harm; and these oil trains; they're called 'bomb trains' for a reason."

Margolis says more pipelines aren't a better solution because they've caused thousands of accidents since 1986.

Speculation and risk analyses are one thing, but Montana fire departments have to prepare to deal with a potentially devastating oil train accident.

Chad Nicholson is Missoula’s Assistant Fire Chief. He says BNSF and MRL are providing local firefighters free training sessions in Colorado to learn how to handle crude oil emergencies, and that one of Montana's six HazMat teams are stationed in Missoula. Still, Nicholson says there's no guarantee people wouldn't die in a crude oil train accident.

"It's such a big variable," Nicholson said. "It would just depend on where the accident would take place, but it does have the potential for injuring or killing a lot of people. I don't think it's any higher than most of the stuff that's transported by rail as far as chemical and gasoline. It’s just that there's so much more of it on the rail now. That's what really increases your chances."

Meanwhile, back in Alberton, 78-year-old Joe Hanson frequently thinks about the 1996 Montana Rail Link chlorine spill that forced the evacuation of the rail town.

"It's a little uneasy because you hear the trains all day long, all night long. You just hope they’re doing the best they can for safety. We’re coming up on 20 years. I think the issue is right now because of the Bakken oil.”