BILLINGS, Mont. — Following a string of explosive accidents, federal officials said Thursday that crude oil being shipped by rail from the Northern Plains across the U.S. and Canada may be more flammable than traditional forms of oil.
A safety alert issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation warns the public, emergency responders and shippers about the potential high volatility of the crude being shipped from the Bakken oil shale patch in Montana and North Dakota.
The warning comes after the massive explosion caused by an oil train derailment on Monday near Casselton, N.D. No one was hurt, but worries about toxic fumes prompted the evacuation of hundreds of residents from the small eastern North Dakota town.
The oil boom in the Bakken has reduced the nation’s reliance on imported oil and brought thousands of jobs to the region. But as companies have increasingly relied on trains to get that oil to lucrative coastal markets, public safety in communities bisected by rail lines has become a major concern.
In July, 47 people were killed in Lac Megantic, Quebec, when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed. Another oil train derailed and exploded in Alabama in November, killing no one but releasing an estimated 749,000 gallons of oil from 26 tanker cars.
The amount of oil moved by rail has spiked since 2009, from just more than 10,000 tanker cars to a projected 400,000 cars in 2013.
Thursday’s safety alert resulted in part from results of preliminary tests on Bakken oil to determine just how dangerous it is, said Jeannie Shiffer with the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration.
Shiffer said it is important to know the volatility of the oil so that it can be properly handled during shipping.
“The material must be properly classified at the beginning of the process. That determines everything,” she said.
The issue of volatility is of particular importance for fire fighters and other emergency responders who have to deal with accidents like the one in Casselton, said Fred Milllar, a rail safety consultant in Virginia.
While it may appear obvious that crude oil is dangerous, that message has not been fully shared with the hundreds of counties and cities across the U.S. that have seen a surge in crude oil trains, Millar said.