The mile-long freight train chugged through the snow-blanketed, empty flatlands of northern Minnesota, its headlight cutting through the pre-dawn twilight an hour before sunrise. Then the sparks began flying in glowing arches, as the thousands of tons of railcars, balanced on metal wheels, strained against the tracks, when the train swayed.
How loud the protesting metal screamed in the still Minnesota pre-dawn, as ninety-four rail freight and tanker cars fought against gravity and momentum. How loud the roars and crashes as metal hit metal and earth when 14 of those tanker cars flew from the tracks, smashing into each other.
And then the unearthly quiet, except for the idling engines, and the gut-wrenching sounds of crude oil splashing from three tanker cars, staining the frozen ground near Parker’s Prairie, Minnesota, population 1000.
Welcome to the new generation of train-borne crude oil transport. This time, about 15,000 gallons of crude were spilled. News accounts claim this is the first instance of a train oil spill since the oil booms began in the North Dakota Bakken field, and the Canadian tar sands. Both fields blossomed a few years ago, and direct vast amounts of crude oil into railroad tanker cars, in addition to shipments through traditional pipelines.
Published accounts have not yet revealed the type of crude oil spilled, although this train did originate in Alberta. Both the North Dakota and Canadian oil fields lack the massive pipeline networks that move virtually all oil from older fields, for instance in California and along the Gulf Coast. Generally, train transport has more, but smaller spills compared to pipelines, which have much fewer, but some larger spills.
The railroads aggressively pursue hauling this crude, with ads in the industry magazines touting,”Mix some rail with your crude.” Currently about 400,000 barrels a day of crude travel by train, mostly from the Bakken oil field centered in North Dakota. Virtually all of the remaining 6 million barrels/day of domestic crude oil production travel by pipeline.
This time, the crude spilled onto frozen ground and swiftly solidified, preventing contamination of ground and surface water. But how well prepared are the railroads to respond swiftly to future oil spills from inevitable train derailments? Trains “jump track” for many obscure reasons. And Crude oil is technically classified as non-hazardous, reducing the railroads’ responsibilities.
During the big ethanol boom a few years ago, the ethanol refineries also lacked pipelines, so most shipped ethanol by rail. One result was a series of spectacular derailments of ethanol tanker cars, with huge fires and explosions in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and elsewhere. No one was ready.
Who is checking on the spill response plans for the railroads as they begin to move huge amounts of crude oil? Are the roads staging response equipment at strategic locations? Are response crews on call? Let’s hope someone in power is asking these questions.