INVESTIGATORS: Explosive oil trains - KMSP-TV

INVESTIGATORS: Explosive oil trains

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On Thursday, Minnesota lawmakers will start discussing ways to avoid a disaster that some worry is waiting to happen, and the Fox 9 Investigators looked into how an oil explosion could affect your community.

A lot of people are worried about the trains that carry explosive oil from North Dakota through Minnesota, which has become a main thoroughfare for the oil cars running from the Bakken region to refineries to the east. A total of 400 miles of track weave through Minnesota and snake through cities big and small -- including Minneapolis and St. Paul.

It is the most flammable oil ever to come from the ground, hurtling past in tankers -- 85 percent of which are not, by government standards, strong enough to hold something that explosive. Yet, many of those who live just feet from the line that parallels Hollywood Avenue don't think about the risks.

When they do, the risks are obviously frightening.

"That is devastating to think about," Tim Hogetvedt said.

It's hard to avoid imagining the street in northeast Minneapolis as the set of a real-life disaster film. Different tracks in Big Lake actually keep the chief of police up at night over the worries that the worst-case scenario could come to his town.

"They're coming through one, two in the morning," Big Lake Police Chief Joel Scharf said. "I lay awake and think about, 'what if?'"

What if what's already happened in other places took place along the tracks that split his town in two?

"You would have a large amount of fatalities, a large amount of critically-injured people and an incident that would be incredibly manpower-intensive to bring under control," he said.

It is not out of the realm of possibility either. In the past year, there have been at least three rail explosions involving oil cars:

- Alabama

- North Dakota

- Lac Megantic, Quebec

The only catastrophe to occur in a populated area was the explosion in Canada, and that's the one that got Scharf thinking.

"The first thing you do is apply that exact same footprint to your community and see what kind of impact it would have," he said.

That's what the Fox 9 Investigators decided to do -- apply the footprint of the Lac Megantic derailment to Wayzata, where a train derailed not long ago.

"We very much dodged a bullet in that particular incident," Lt. Mike Murphy, with the Wayzata Police Department, acknowledged.

It was 2010 and the oil boom had just begun when the cars carrying coal derailed. If the freight that day had been oil and if there had been a spark, Murphy admits they "would have had a big problem."

Furthermore, Murphy does not think it's a far-fetched scenario to consider.

"You think, 'Yeah. Someday, that could be us. It's not gonna be good. We're gonna have to deal with that, perhaps," he said.

So, what would that look like? If an oil car derailed where the coal cars did under the wrong combination of conditions, the explosion could destroy the area and claim lives.

Lac Megantic burst into flames and chaos after the 102-car freight train crumpled downtown. Those closest to the blast were simply erased. At least three people were gone without a trace. If the same were to occur in Wayzata, Richard Bray, who sits at a desk with his back just feet from where the train derailed, would face the same fate.

In Quebec, the blast zone was about a mile wide and the death toll was 47. Fire claimed 40 buildings, and in Wayzata, that fire would likely move quickly and in unexpected ways. Additionally, a map of Wayzata's sewer system highlights another problem Canadian emergency responders faced -- burning oil drained into the sewers and spread below the city. Flames could leap up through manholes and into homes through drain pipes.

In Wayzata, the Fox 9 Investigators measured a half a mile in all directions from the derailment site. That area includes a 42-unit apartment building, the headquarters of TCF Bank, several office buildings, blocks of shops, an $8-million mansion and neighborhoods containing dozens of homes, two churches, and Wayzata West Middle School. The school alone has an enrollment of 750.

Murphy believes everyone in that zone could be evacuated if a hazardous material incident were to occur where the derailment did -- but consider this: If the explosion happens a bit further down the line, the blast zone would include in the police and fire departments.

"If we're all wiped out, that would cause a huge problem," Murphy concedes.

In many small towns, police and fire stations can be found just blocks away from the tracks. That means Help would have to come from the closest town, or the county.

How ready are communities across the state? Some say they'd like to know exactly what's rolling through their town and how often. Railroads don't have to warn cities when hazardous materials are passing through, though individual cars are marked.

"That is a real problem and another gap that we're going to be looking at," DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein said.

According to Hornstein, it's hard to get good information about oil tankers -- even about how much of the explosive oil runs the rails in Minnesota. The state's transportation department says only 6 to 10 trains carrying oil cars passing through the state each day -- but that number seems impossibly low to those who live or work by the tracks.

General hazardous material training exercises put on by the railroad companies are common, but few have trained specifically for oil tanker explosions and fires. Out of 20 Minnesota fire departments the Fox 9 Investigators spoke with, only 4 have conducted specialized training.

"It's the basic fundamentals we've tried to work on," Murphy said.

In fact, many emergency disaster plans were written before the height of the oil boom. Wayzata's most recent is from 2011.

"They're all very unique and different situations, but in my mind, the one I would fear the most is having the large explosion and fire over top of everything," Scharf said.

There are factors that affect the likelihood of a derailment. The first is the speed of the train; the faster the train, the more likely the derailment.

According to figures given to the Fox 9 Investigators, the maximum average speed of trains in the metro area is 38 mph. BNSF representatives say the railroad hasn't asked federal regulators to increase speeds to accommodate oil demand; however, Canadian Pacific did for trains running through Plymouth, Crystal and New Hope. Train speeds were doubled from 20 mph to 40 mph. Canadian Pacific says it changed the tracks so they could safely accommodate those speeds.

The second factor is elevation of the train. If tankers filled with oil derail and fall from a trestle like the one looming over the busy Dinkytown neighborhood near the University of Minnesota, the odds of explosion are much greater.

Finally, track maintenance matters. That's one reason the man who sits closest to the similar disaster site doesn't spend much time worrying about it happing to him.

"You get to see the maintenance they're doing," Bray said. "They're constantly working on the rails."

Yet, emergency officials say thinking that way is a luxury they simply don't have.

"If you think nothing's going to happen with all those oil tankers rolling through town, that would be a total miscalculation," Murphy said.

The situation has become so worrisome, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a series of unprecedented recommendations -- including asking railroads to reroute trains with hazardous materials around populated areas and making tanker cars more puncture-resistant.

On Tuesday night, federal regulators also issued an emergency order requiring tests of crude oil to determine how likely cargo may be to explode or catch fire prior to shipping.

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