Wyoming emergency managers heavily rely on railroads to respond to derailments
— December 31, 2013
You might be surprised, in this era of extra emphasis on safety, that your local emergency management officials know about as much about what’s rolling through town on trains as you do.
“I think if people knew what was rolling through on the railroad cars, they wouldn’t want to live near the railroad, quite honestly,” Converse County Emergency Management Coordinator Russ Dalgarn told WyoFile.
In light of the BNSF Railway oil tanker train disaster one mile outside of Casselton, North Dakota, on Monday afternoon, I thought I’d quiz local emergency management coordinators about the potential for such an event, and the response, should something similar happen in Wyoming.
Dalgarn, who works in a county with some of the heaviest coal train traffic in the nation, and where trains roll through the middle of Douglas, said he and other local emergency responders have no way of knowing what’s being shipped through the community.
“I don’t look at it any different than what semis are hauling through town,” said Dalgarn. “There’s no way companies can share that information all of the time.” Dalgarn added that in his five years as emergency management coordinator, BNSF has responded to all train derailments, requiring little assistance from local response teams.
Standard procedure, whether it’s a train derailment or semi crash, is to drive to the scene, keep your distance, get out the binoculars and read any visible placards to determine what chemicals might be involved.
“We have haz-mat (hazardous materials) teams throughout our system, and we also work on an ongoing basis to train emergency service personnel,” Matt Jones, spokesman for BNSF Railway, told WyoFile.
Wyoming’s industrial train traffic is not insignificant. The Union Pacific line, along the state’s I-80 corridor in the south, is a main transcontinental route for everything from coal to chemicals to department store-bound televisions. In the northeast portion of the state, UP and BNSF Railway run upwards of 75 loaded coal trains daily — in addition to cargo that includes chemicals and various merchandise.
David King is emergency management coordinator in Wyoming’s king-of-coal Campbell County — the nation’s predominant coal supplier. He said the region is listed among railroads as Class A, meaning “anything can go through.”
“What I understand is BNSF has reduced the number of hazardous material (payloads) they do carry through our rail-line so they can reduce the potential for a long-term shutdown (if there is an accident),” King told WyoFile.
In Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, coal traffic dominates. BNSF has a special response team in place in Gillette to quickly clean up derailments and keep trains moving, based upon the urgency of keeping upwards of 400 million tons of coal per year flowing nonstop from the basin to coal-fired power plants in some 36 states.
“If we have something (a delay) here, there’s a ripple effect all the way to Texas,” King said.
In 2005, when there were back-to-back train derailments (caused by buildup of coal dust) on the Powder River Basin main line heading south, the delay caused utilities across the nation to eat into their stockpiles, leaving some of them within days of running low on fuel and dimming lights.
So what of human safety in relation to train traffic in Wyoming? Emergency managers say they work closely with the railroads’ own response teams. They still may know “nothing” about what’s being railed across Wyoming prairies and through our towns, and the response begins with peering through binoculars, hoping to glean vital information from what placards might be visible in the wreckage.
“We have oil tankers coming through town (Douglas) everyday,” said Dalgarn, noting that the Powder River Basin oil play continues to grow larger, and the industry continues to expand oil-to-rail load out systems.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on January 7, 2014 to correct the spelling of Russ Dalgarn.
— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. He has written about Wyoming’s energy industries for 15 years. You can reach him at (307) 577-6069 or (307) 267-3327, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer
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