Following Oil Train Wrecks, Whitefish Touts First Responders’ Training

By Beacon Staff

As the number of oil trains rolling through the Flathead Valley increases, city officials and first responders in Whitefish touted their readiness for a hazardous materials spill. In a letter written by Fire Chief Tom Kennelly, Police Chief Bill Dial and Mayor John Muhlfeld, the officials this week said public safety was their primary concern and that local first responders would partake in training events with BNSF Railway later this year.

The letter came just days after a Maine fire chief testified before a congressional committee about his department’s lack of training before being called to a deadly oil train wreck in Canada last summer. On July 6, 2013, a runaway Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway oil train crashed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Que., killing 47 people and leveling more than 30 buildings. Hours later, Rangeley, Maine Fire Chief Tim Pellerin led a group of firefighters over the border to help battle the fire. During last week’s subcommittee hearing, Pellerin described a scene where “oil ran down the street like hot lava” and urged lawmakers to fund first responders training.

“I think the biggest part is we are prepared for the residential, common everyday emergencies,” he said. “We’re not prepared for a fire like this.”

The Lac-Mégantic wreck was the first of a series of explosive oil train derailments last year, including one on Dec. 30, 2013, when a BNSF oil train derailed and exploded in Casselton, N.D. No one was injured in the North Dakota incident. Since then the movement of Bakken crude oil by rail has come under scrutiny.

In the letter, Whitefish officials wrote that the police department has basic training in how to respond to a hazardous materials incident and that the fire department is trained to National Fire Protection Association standards. They also said that area fire departments and BNSF are preparing for a drill hosted by the Flathead Office of Emergency Services set for October.

At a recent meeting between city and railroad officials, Muhlfeld asked BNSF to plan a town hall meeting later this spring so that it could address questions directly from the public. The time and place of that meeting has not yet been scheduled.

“We cannot minimize (the) importance of the partnerships that have been established between public and private sectors for without these relationships the foundation for a successful response to a major incident wouldn’t be possible,” officials wrote.

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