Balloon Juice has its very own lurker fire chief. And he has done a guest post for us on fire fighting and emergency management. Specifically in regard to oil train fires. His post below is adapted from a paper he is presenting this week at a professional conference and he should be around in the comments to answer any on topic questions you might have. Without further ado, I give you Fire Chief Jim Appleton.
I was the fire chief in the 2016 oil train derailment and fire in Mosier, Oregon.
I’ve been a Balloon Juice lurker and sparse commenter for over fifteen years, whenever The Poorman sent a bunch of us here to laugh at John. FSM, I miss The Poorman. And Ken.
I’ll be speaking in Chicago on Thursday and Friday later this week on a couple of panels about oil trains. Links below. Any big-shouldered BJers interested are encouraged to attend and/or spread the word. Please meet and greet! My schedule is not conducive for a separate meet up.
The panel organizer invited me based on a couple of my public statements during the emergency. My position then and now has been a call for banning oil trains, from the perspective of an emergency manager.
But my understanding of the issues has evolved considerably.
Like many, when I first saw what I was dealing with that hot Friday afternoon, I knew the monster as a “bomb train.”
Having been through the response and a lot of training and contacts, I now say that calling them bomb trains is an effective rallying cry, but it’s wrong for technical reasons and problematic because the term is dangerously and erroneously alarming, and because it misses the real threats, which are toxic release and fire. The concentration of risk in trains consisting entirely of oil is what makes them so insanely dangerous.
The activists who speak about “blast zones” and explosions are scaring a lot of people who need to know that those potential hazards are not likely to kill them. And that the real threats are potentially more insidious and more common than most people know.
They justify that focus by pointing to one source — the federally approved hazardous materials response guide which all agencies are required to use.
That guide groups oil fires with other flammable liquids into a one-size-fits-all set of steps to ensure public safety during the first thirty minutes of any incident involving those materials.
The guideline sets a half-mile evacuation distance. Again, assuming a worst case for a whole class of hazards. Based on that, a common misconception of a half-mile “blast zone” has become a defining characteristic of oil train activism.
But, as we learned in Mosier, oil trains seldom explode. When they do, it’s from a high-energy accident in which huge amounts of oil are released.
And even then, oil tanker explosions are not as violent as portrayed.
There is no supersonic shock wave, just a lot of heat and a spectacular mushroom cloud of burning vapor. The image is terrifying. And oil tanker explosions have killed people. But only from heat, not from violent detonation.
In Mosier, we knew in the first hour that there was no risk of explosion. There just wasn’t enough heat to cause them.
That’s far more typical of oil train accidents. The exceptions are few and well known — Lac Megantic, Casselton.
Reliable statistics on oil train accidents are hard to come by.
Suffice it to say, there are a lot more than you probably think. They are not widely known because they tend to be in the middle of nowhere and consequences are seldom newsworthy.
Mosier was exceptional only because it happened in a populated area close to a major media market.
Sooner or later, there will be another oil train accident which will top the news cycle because it harms critical infrastructure, a metropolitan center, or an irreplaceable natural resource.
It’s a matter of time.
And the damage done will not be from violent explosions.
It will be from toxic liquid oil, or fire.
The Mosier incident was a fairy tale as oil train accidents go. The amount of oil released, less than 50,000 gallons, is near the low end of the scale. No one was hurt. Even during the cleanup with all kinds of hazards and heavy equipment, not one person even requested a bandaid. And there was no property damage, other than in the railroad right of way, and relatively minimal damage to the municipal wastewater treatment plant, which was quickly repaired at the railroad’s expense.
If the next one happens, say, on the Burlington Northern line along the Flathead River by Glacier National Park, crews could take days just to reach the site because of terrain and lack of roads. During that time, pristine river and wilderness would be left alone with whatever the accident spawns.
Same goes for one which burns up part of downtown Spokane or Seattle.
Call them “very incredibly toxic napalm trains,” I’m OK.
Finally, the regulatory logjam and Trumpist dick-swinging which has actually rolled back oil train safety measures as well as obstructing cheap, common sense enhancements is one of, sadly, many priorities which are likely to be secondary to more important changes requiring expensive political effort in coming years. And that assumes Trump goes, one way or another.