Increase in Crude Oil Transit by Rail Raises Public Safety Issues

Workers in the midst of clean-up efforts at the site of a train derailment and crude oil spill located south of Greeley, Colo., May 12, 2014.

Grace Hood / KUNC

Workers in the midst of clean-up efforts at the site of a train derailment and crude oil spill located south of Greeley, Colo., May 12, 2014.

From 2012 to 2013 the amount of crude oil carried by the country's major freight railroads increased nearly 75 percent, according to the American Association of Railroads, an astonishing year-by-year jump.

This increase in crude oil by rail is playing out across Colorado’s Niobrara formation along the eastern plains, with resource-rich Weld County being ground zero. As the state’s oil production boom continues—exceeding the capacity of pipelines that traditionally have carried the oil—more companies are shipping crude by rail.

Over the past two years, rail companies have built two crude loading facilities and doubled capacity at a third site in Weld County. And, for the first time in nearly a decade, this region recently experienced a crude oil tanker derailment. On May 9, six cars of a 100-car Union Pacific train derailed south of Greeley, spilling about 5,000 gallons of oil.

The event caught the attention of Weld County’s Office of Emergency Management.

“We really want to be able to say, OK we know individually at least from our county standpoint of what’s being transported through, whether it be crude oil, whether it be other chemicals like chlorines, and hydrous ammonias—those types of things,” said Roy Rudisill, office director.

Rudisill said when his team encountered the oil spill one month ago; he was surprised his agency wasn’t near the top of the railroad’s notification list.

Federal regulators are especially concerned about shipments of crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada. That wasn’t the oil involved in the Greeley spill. But Bakken crude is believed by some to be more volatile – and connected to fiery tank car accidents—one of which killed 47 people in Quebec in 2013.

“Up until this time we’ve had a real problem in that local emergency responders have had almost no idea of the contents of the trains that were rolling through their communities,” said Lloyd Burton, a University of Colorado professor who studies rail transport of hazardous materials.

A new federal seeks to address that shortcoming, although it applies only to Bakken crude.

This article first appeared on Inside Energy on June 10..

A map of the Bakken and Three Forks Formations within the Williston Basin of North Dakota, Montana, and South Dakota.

U.S. Geological Survey / U.S. Department of the Interior

A map of the Bakken and Three Forks Formations within the Williston Basin of North Dakota, Montana, and South Dakota.

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