Author(s): Gregory Cade. Published on November 2, 2015.

Hazard on the Tracks

How NFPA is addressing the rail transport of crude oil and ethanol. BY GREGORY B. CADE

BAKKEN CRUDE OIL TRANSPORTED BY RAIL is on the minds of members of Congress as they, along with federal, state, and local officials, seek to help first responders cope with the impacts of derailments and similar incidents. A report last year by the Department of Transportation estimated that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol in the U.S. will derail an average of 10 times each year over the next 20 years, with 15 crashes predicted for 2015. A single severe crash in a densely populated urban area could kill 200 people and cause $6 billion in damage, the report said.

Several bills in Congress would fund the creation of new facilities to provide hands-on training for first responders. While another training venue could have a positive impact on responder preparedness for crude-oil incidents, leveraging existing training facilities, rather than constructing new ones, would have a more immediate impact on a larger group of responders. The National Fire Academy, for example, already develops incident-response curriculum and trains incident commanders in how to deal with large-scale, complex, multi-discipline incidents. Academy staff members work closely with state training directors to provide courses that can be delivered efficiently at the local level. The need for this training is urgent; fulfilling this need now through the Academy, rather than waiting until new facilities come online, would be a more efficient way to address this gap. NFPA will continue to work with Congress to find the best balance between these options.

Other efforts are also addressing this hazard. The Federal Railroad Administration and the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have released funding for first responder training activities; while gaps remain in the information local communities have about the materials carried by trains, the funding may improve their response capabilities. Additionally, NFPA is working with the National Transportation Safety Board as it investigates pre-incident planning and post-incident response in crude-oil derailments. The purpose of these investigations is to determine a variety of related factors: whether standards and trained responders were in place before the incident occurred; the impact preparation had on the outcome; how well the standards performed; and whether changes should be made to those standards, amendments that would be evaluated through NFPA’s standards process. Finally, NFPA’s Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Technical Committee is considering a Canadian request for handling crude-oil-transport incidents.

NFPA continues to inform legislators of the benefits of incorporating its codes and standards to train first responders in dealing with response-related hazards, from pre-planning to advanced hazmat response—areas where the use of NFPA standards can have a positive impact on the outcome of a response to an incident.

While political and social pressure may mount against fossil fuel, significant quantities of crude oil and other hazardous fuels will continue to roll through cities and towns on rail. As long as these hazards continue, NFPA codes and standards will support the safety of those communities and their first responders. We will continue to inform legislatures and government officials on the need for codes and standards to protect their citizens.

GREGORY B. CADE is division director, Government Affairs for NFPA. Top Photograph: Bryan Patrick/Sacramento Bee/MCT/Newscom