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Ohio Utica Shale

Hudson concerned about threat from Bakken oil trains

By Bob Downing Published: July 26, 2014

HUDSON: Bill Rich is troubled by the increasing number of tank cars he sees on the Norfolk Southern Corp. rail line in northern Summit County - rail cars that could be carrying highly volatile Bakkan crude oil.

Mile-long trains dominated by hundreds of tank cars are common through downtown Hudson, and some may be carrying more than 3.5 million gallons of the crude, extracted from North Dakota and Montana and headed to East Coast refineries.

As the U.S. rapidly increases its oil and gas production beyond the capacity of existing pipelines, rail shipments of all types of oil have surged, from 9,344 tank cars in 2008 to more than 434,000 in 2013, says the American Association of Railroads. There was a 75 percent increase in the last year alone.

Bakken is the most volatile, and perhaps more than 50 trains loaded with the North Dakota crude pass through northern Ohio weekly. Safety concerns have mounted as 47 people died in a crash-explosion in 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Last April, a train carrying 3 million gallons of Bakken shale derailed and exploded in Lynchburg, Va. There were other accidents in North Dakota, Alabama, Pennsylvania, New Brunswick, and Oklahoma.

"It's a very serious situation," said the 68-year-old Rich. "If people are unaware of what's happening, it's because they have their heads stuck in the sand.... If something happens in Hudson, it will be bad. These are rolling bombs. This is a disaster waiting to happen."

Hudson gets an average of 72 trains per day on its double tracks and each tank car can hold up to 30,000 gallons. Tank cars also transport regular crude oil and an array of chemicals.

Incomplete reporting

Before May of this year, there was no warning to local officials that Bakken crude was on its way. But the federal government has ordered railroads to notify state officials when they haul more than 1 million gallons of Bakken oil. First responders such as police and fire are notified along the routes.

However, at 30,000 gallons per car, a train with 33 tank cars would fall below the 1 million threshold and not require notification.

There is little local communities can do to prevent mishaps because they have little control over rail traffic. That's largely under federal control.

Hudson Fire Chief Jerry Varnes said the Bakken shipments "concern me because they are far more hazardous than traditional crude oil."

Fire and emergency-response officials across northern Ohio are aware of the threat and have increased training and planning to deal with incidents, he said. Varnes has received only a few notifications of shipments through town in the few months that the new rule has been in place.

And although emergency responders are now notified, the State Emergency Response Commission is refusing to release that information to the public, said Joe Andrews of the Ohio Department of Public Safety.

Regulatory changes

Varnes also expressed concern about the safety of the cars.

Tank cars, he said, "aren't as robust as they should be... and that creates a big risk."

The railroads last February took voluntary steps to reduce rail accidents. That includes slowing oil trains in urban areas, boosting track inspections and installing leak detectors.

The federal government is working with industry groups to draft new mandatory rules. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has proposed eliminating older unsafe tank cars within two years, improving train braking systems and slowing oil trains in urban areas.

The older tank cars account for two thirds of today's shipments.

Other safety proposals include thickening the steel on the rail cars, adding more robust shields at the end of the tanks, protecting valves on the top of tank cars and adding a thermal jacket to protect oil from heating as easily to the point of exploding. Those changes would be costly.

Railroads do not own the tank cars. They are owned or leased by oil and chemical companies.

Conflicting numbers

The railroads say they are safely moving Bakken oil.

Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation are both shipping major volumes of Bakken oil through Ohio.

The Norfolk Southern refuses to say much about those shipments. It is company policy not to comment on shipments, routes or volumes for competitive and security reasons, said spokesman David Pidgeon.

Rail is the only option to get Bakken oil to market because there are no pipelines, the company said on an online report.

Norfolk Southern says it launched Bakken oil shipments through Ohio in late 2011, working with partner BNSF Railway Co.

Finding reliable shipment data is difficult.

Norfolk Southern and CSX together dispatch five to eight oil trains per week through Pennsylvania, according to NPR's StateImpact Pennsylvania.

However, CSX told the New York State Emergency Response Commission that it is shipping up to 44 oil trains per week from North Dakota to New York via Northeast Ohio. That is its main route.

The Bakken region produces about 1 million barrels of crude per day.

The oil is shipped by the BNSF to Cicero, Ill., outside Chicago. Some also goes to West Coast refineries. The east-bound oil is then shipped on the Norfolk Southern and the CSX lines through northern Ohio.

It costs money to ship the oil out of the northern Plains, but it fetches a higher price on the coasts - up to $10 or more a barrel. That works out to roughly $700,000 per train, according to estimates.

The East Coast refineries previously processed imported oil from Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico.

Blast zone

A California-based eco-group, ForestEthics, estimates that 25 million Americans live in the potential oil train blast zone.

That estimate is based on a 1-mile evacuation zone in case of a oil train fire and a half mile zone in case of a spill.

"Citizens understand the damage, it's time for policy makers to catch up and step up," said Todd Paglia, executive director of ForestEthics. "The only sane thing to do is ban these exploding trains.

His group's mapping tool is available at www.blast-zone.org.

Hudson's Chief Varnes says the greatest threat of accidents and derailments is at rail crossings like those at Stow and Hines Hill roads. Also at curves, although the Norfolk Southern line is mostly straight in Hudson, he said.

Bakken crude is less of a threat than clouds of air-borne toxic chemicals that are harder to control than liquids, he said. That is his biggest fear.

Meanwhile, Hudson residents are wary.

"Reports of accidents in other locations naturally make me think of the possibility of a disaster in Hudson," said resident Tom Semple. "I wonder whether safety regulations are sufficient and whether the railway is following them. I also wonder whether our local officials recognize the potential for a disaster and are sufficiently trained and knowledgeable to properly respond....There's a lot we don't know."

Hudson resident Terry Considine Williams is troubled, too.

"It's a dangerous thing," she said. "I'm concerned...and I'm convinced that this threat is not being taken seriously enough. It's real. We need more prevention. This is something we must avoid."

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