BNSF, Whitefish Hold Town Hall Meeting on Oil Train Safety

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – As more crude oil rides the rails, BNSF Railway held a town hall meeting in Whitefish on June 10 to inform the public about measures the company is taking to prepare for the worst. Movement of crude oil by rail has been scrutinized recently after a series of high-profile derailments.

Spokesperson Matt Jones and other BNSF officials outlined the steps the railroad company has taken to respond to a spill or fire if an oil train were to derail. They also discussed steps the railroad is taking to prevent derailments in the first place.

“It’s very important as a railroad that we operate safely and that’s our No. 1 priority,” Jones said. “Our goal and vision is to prevent every accident before it happens and we’re coming a long way in that goal but we do understand the hazards of moving freight and hazardous materials.”

On July 6, 2013, a runway Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Que. Forty-seven people were killed and much of the downtown was leveled. Since then, other oil trains have derailed and exploded in Alberta, Alabama, North Dakota, New Brunswick and Virginia.

While railroad officials noted those high-profile accidents, they also said it was important to recognize that 99 percent of hazardous material rail shipments arrive at its destination safely. Jones also said that 2013 was the safest year on record for BNSF and the railroad industry as a whole.

Justin Piper, head of BNSF’s hazardous materials program, talked about the different types of tank cars the railroad and its shippers use to move crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. Since last year intense focus has been put on the DOT-111 type tank car that has been involved in some of the recent oil train wrecks and were called an “unnecessary public risk” by the National Transportation Safety Board. Piper said the railroad has ordered 5,000 new 1232 type tank cars that are safer and built to tougher standards. The “next generation” tank car features thicker steel, shields on each end of the car to prevent it from being punctured and are more crash resistant.

Railroad officials also discussed the Flathead Geographic Response Plan, which was recently developed to be prepared if an oil train derailed between East Glacier Park and Stryker. The plan, developed with local emergency agencies, outlines nearly 40 different responses if oil spilled in the Middle Fork of the Flathead River corridor. Nic Winslow, with BNSF’s environmental remediation program, said the response plan has detailed maps of the entire rail corridor and lists locations where booms could be deployed to stop the spread of oil. Winslow said that BNSF has booms stationed in Whitefish and West Glacier.

But people in attendance questioned how effective booms would be, especially on the fast moving Middle Fork of the Flathead River. David Kauffman, a former Flathead County sheriff’s deputy who was involved with the local hazmat team said he did not think the railroad could quickly deploy enough booms and equipment to remove spilled oil from the river.

“I think they owe it to the community to prove that they can effectively clean up a spill from even just one tank car,” he said.

BNSF officials also talked about the steps the company is taking to prepare for a fire or an explosion should a train derail. Piper said trailers with fire suppression foam have been stationed in Whitefish and that the railroad company is working with local first responders to improve training. The company is planning on sending more than 700 first responders from around the country to a special three-day oil train derailment-training course in Colorado this summer and will be holding special training exercises later this fall in Whitefish.

Another question raised was about how BNSF is securing oil trains and the installation of additional avalanche snow sheds to protect the tracks near Essex. On two different occasions in March, BNSF’s main line through Northwest Montana was closed due to massive avalanches that came down on the tracks and snow sheds. Jones said the railroad does not plan to build additional sheds at this time but noted that the current ones are being maintained and that it has avalanche experts to monitor snow conditions.

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld said he plans on following up with BNSF in the coming days.

“The systems in place are not fail safe and there are big risks with moving these materials through our community,” Muhlfeld said. “I think this meeting was an important first step.”

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