McCoy's Oil Train Summit Shows Dangers

From: Times Union

Story By: Brian Nearing

When a crude oil train derailed and exploded into a fireball this spring a few feet from a remote tributary of the Mississippi River, local firefighters were “totally outgunned,” said   Chuck Pedersen, who heads up emergency services for a small rural county in Illinois.

All that the first firefighters to show up near the flaming wreck could do was “get out of there and let it burn,” said Pedersen, who spoke Monday at a crude oil summit convened by Albany County Executive Dan McCoy and county Sheriff Craig Apple Sr. at The College of Saint Rose.

About 100 residents heard accounts of two derailments — the March 2015 derailment in Daviess County, near Galena, Ill., and an April 2014 crash in Lynchburg, Va. — that could be called near-misses, in which no one was hurt and damage was confined to railroad tracks.  

But the most dramatic account came from Tim Pellerin, chief of the small fire department in Rangeley, Maine, whose crews arrived the morning after a catastrophic July 6, 2013 oil train crash, explosion and massive fire that leveled the small downtown of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. Forty-five ruptured tankers — each carrying more than 30,000 gallons of highly flammable crude oil — sent a river of flaming oil through streets and into a nearby lake.  

Pellerin described the charred ruins as a “war zone,” where chimneys were the only objects still standing among incinerated buildings spread across six blocks. To locate victims, he said, emergency crews shoveled out scorched debris for specially trained “cadaver dogs” to sniff.

“I am not trying to scare you,” he said. “But I am   trying to show you the reality." And he said such devastation had an effect on local emergency workers who knew the victims.

A new firefighter in Lac-Megantic had his first call the night of the disaster, which claimed his aunt and uncle. “By October, that firefighter took his own life. He was the 48th victim,” said Pellerin.

McCoy called the meeting to bring lessons learned in oil train accidents to the Capital Region, where crude oil trains from North Dakota each week bring millions of gallons of highly flammable crude oil to the Port of Albany, often passing very close to homes and businesses along the tracks. “It is not a matter of if, but a matter of when,” said McCoy. “This is far from over."  

Pellerin’s advice for emergency preparedness should a train catch fire? “Think of the Big One and then plan for one twice that size.” In Lac-Megan-tic, 40 buildings burned down, and another 160 will be demolished.

In Lynchburg, where a crude oil train hauling 104 tanker cars derailed, pitching 16 cars off the tracks near a children’s museum filled with kids, Battalion Chief Robert Lipscomb said it was just luck that tankers tumbled   toward the James River and not downtown.

“If it had gone the other way, we could have lost a significant amount of downtown,” he said. Three tankers fell into the river, with one erupting in flame that spread across the surface of the water.

“We were overwhelmed,” said Lipscomb. He said the oil fire roared “like a jet engine going off,” and described the blaze as fierce, hot and “scary ... When I first rolled up to this, it was terrifying." The firefighters allow the oil to burn off, because trying to extinguish it could have left more pollution in the river.  

In Galena, firefighters were initially hampered because the oil train derailed in heavy woods near a river. Once the crew got close, they saw dark billowing smoke and a fireball, and then reversed course, leaving their tanker and hoses behind, said Pedersen. “We were fortunate that they were able to escape."

Six cars out of 21 that derailed exploded. The railroad had to hack out an access road to bring equipment to the scene, he said.

After the blaze finally burned itself out, cleanup began. A metal seawall was put up along the bank, to prevent oil-soaked earth from getting into the   water. After the weather warmed up, melting snow and ice and threatening to flood the scene, the Army Corps of Engineers used an upriver dam on the Mississippi to keep the river level low.

Three months later, there are still more than 80 state, local and federal emergency workers assigned to the cleanup, added Pedersen.

A Washington, D.C.-based railway safety expert, Fred Millar, said New York state and the Capital Region, in particular, are now the “strategic locale" for rail shipments of crude from the Bakken fields of North Dakota to coastal refineries along the Atlantic seaboard.  

Crude oil trains are now carrying between 5 percent and 9 percent of the total U.S. petroleum supply through New York, said Millar.

He said the federal government has done too little to require railroads to reveal the scheduling and content of oil trains to local emergency planning officials by allowing rail companies to be exempted from federal right-to-know laws. “An uninformed community means dead firefighters ... It is un-American to keep citizens in the dark," said Millar.  

In Albany, some tenants at the Ezra Prentice homes, a city-owned public housing project on South Pearl Street near the port, are supporting calls for a barrier wall to seal off the port from the housing project. “The wall is just an illusion of safety,” said Charlene Benton, president of the tenants association. “We are trying to make the community aware without creating panic."

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