An oil train derailed and caught fire last week in North Dakota, the fifth accident of its kind in the United States since February 2015.
A close call
For the Prairie Island Indian community near Red Wing, Minn., oil trains are too close for comfort. Many buildings, including the police station, are within 500 feet of that rail line. The nearest fire department is in Red Wing, about 15 minutes away.
"It's a major concern of the tribe because it's something we live with every day," said Prairie Island Indian Community Police Chief Jon Priem.
Access is also a big concern for those residents. If an oil train ever caught fire, there's only one road in or out of the community and it crosses the rail line.
Last October, there was a close call. A tank car on a Canadian Pacific train developed a problem. According to incident reports obtained by the Fox 9 Investigators, the car actually "derailed," damaging railroad ties and track over a 3-mile stretch. The car then "re-railed" itself just outside the Prairie Island Nuclear Plant. A railroad spokesman didn't call it a derailment. He said an alarm alerted the crew to the problem. CP crews were able to bring the 105-car train to a safe stop. The damaged tank car was not carrying Bakken crude, but Chief Priem said dozens of other cars on the same train were carrying it.
"With the volatility of what we've seen in other states and some of the outcomes, very concerning," Priem said.
There were no leaks in any of the oil tank cars but sparks from the dragging metal did ignite a large grass fire.
In Red Wing, one or two oil trains per day roll along the Mississippi River. Another 5 or 6 pass by the Wisconsin side of the river. In this area, firefighters are seriously lacking an adequate supply of foam that is needed to battle a possible oil tank car fire. You can't put out an oil train fire with just water.
Fox 9 Investigators test
To demonstrate what fire crews are up against, The Fox 9 Investigators asked for help from the Fire Protection Program at Hennepin Technical College in Eden Prairie. An instructor and 3 students showed us how the firefighting foam works.
Bakken Crude looks like honey, it is not thick or gooey like traditional oil. Our plan was to set some on fire. But despite weeks of trying, no oil companies or suppliers would sell Fox 9 any Bakken oil. Instead, we used 98 percent ethanol in our test. Fire experts say its volatility is almost identical to Bakken crude.
"That is the problem with Bakken, it just ignites right away. Any kind of spark and that is all you need and that is the concern," said Bernie Vrona, an instructor with the Fire Protection Program.
Vrona and his 3 students, in firefighting gear, poured the ethanol into a fire safe pan. In less than a few seconds, a flaming torch set the Bakken oil substitute on fire. They did the same with motor oil, which has a volatility similar to traditional crude and it took considerably longer to catch on fire.
The student firefighters tried putting out the flames on the ethanol with water but the fire spread. It was like trying to put out a grease fire on a stove with water, the flames only got bigger.
That left two choices; let the fire burn itself out or smother it with foam, which is about the only thing you can use to suppress the vapors of the Bakken substitute. It's the vapors that are so volatile. The students used the foam and the flames in the ethanol pan went out.
"We have a blanket on top of it so the vapor isn't getting through, so that's why it won't relight," said Vrona.
A five gallon bucket of foam sells for about a $120. When you use it on a fire, this amount when mixed with water, will last maybe three to five minutes. One tanker car can carry 30 thousand gallons of Bakken oil. Most fire departments don't have anywhere near the amount of foam needed to fight a fire of that magnitude. If disaster strikes, they would need lots of outside help.
Is Minnesota prepared?
On a scale from 1 to 10, how prepared is Minnesota? "I would say 7 and rising," said Kevin Reed of Minnesota's Department of Public Safety." Both emergency planners and the railroads are holding training sessions around the state to bring some 340 local fire departments up to speed.
Fox 9 talked with two railroad companies (BNSF and Canadian Pacific) each said they are ready to respond to an incident like it.
"We have those resources (firefighting equipment) staged strategically to be able to respond within a few hours anywhere in our network," said Amy McBeth of BNSF railroad.
Each railroad said it maintains stockpiles of foam in the metro and at a few spots out-of-state. Depending on the location of a fire, safety officials say it could take up to four hours to truck foam on scene. Reed said getting enough water to a location could be a bigger issue than the foam itself. For every five gallons of foam concentrate you need at least a hundred gallons of water. To attack one tank car fire with enough foam, crews would need at least 50,000 gallons of water. Crews would need a constant flow of water to make the foam but most of the water tankers that firefighters use in rural areas hold only from 2,000 to 3,000 gallons.
Emergency response personnel say their first priority in an oil train fire would be to evacuate everyone within a half-mile radius. More than 360,000 Minnesotans live within a half mile of a rail line. If that's you, state officials say plan ahead, discuss an escape route with your family. Check to see if your county has an emergency notification network that will alert you by phone or text message to any derailments.
Minnesota rail safety regulations: [READ]
DPS evacuation checklist: [PDF]