You are here

Bakken Bomb Trains: Hell on Rails

By x356039 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, September 1, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Over the past two years the volume of bakken crude oil, extracted from the tar sand fields of Alberta, Wyoming, Utah, North and South Dakota, has skyrocketed by an astonishing 900%. Thanks in part to the work of many brave communities in the line of fire and the logistical difficulties of building a continent-spanning pipeline the companies extracting this toxic material have sought out other methods for moving the volume of material they desire for export overseas to China and points beyond. The solution they have settled on is to move the bakken crude by oil trains, some stretching over a mile, owned by high-powered corporate captains of industry like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates from the point of extraction to the points of refinement and distribution.

They argue the materials being ripped from the Earth's crust are vitally necessary for energy independence and economic growth. What these self-interested short-sighted tycoons overlook is the truly massive cost in far more real terms than a mere bottom line such decisions are inflicting on people, communities, and the biosphere. In spite of the measured, massaged tones they use to assuage the fully-justified fears of the public there is little doubt the extraction, refinement, and movement of bakken crude by rail is a clear and present danger to all life in the path of these deadly horsemen.

The first and surest sign of the threat these bomb trains pose is the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. A small community located on Lake Megantic it is the sort of place, prior to the summer of 2013, one would never have expected to become associated with the worst rail disaster in Canadian history and one of the worst ever in North America. One fateful evening a bakken crude train was pulled off to a siding by its lone crew member so they could take a break from an extremely long shift and catch up on much needed sleep. During the night the brakes securing the train came loose and the train rolled off the track, tipping over and rupturing the tanks containing the highly volatile bakken crude. Thanks to the incredibly low flash point of bakken crude, due to the nature of the refining process, the entire train load went up in a flash obliterating a huge swath of Lac-Megantic. In the rushing inferno that followed 47 people's lives were mercilessly snuffed out, from young children to the elderly, without warning or any possibility of escape.

In the immediate wake firefighters from across Quebec and neighboring Maine were called in to bring the fires under control, do whatever they could for the survivors, and bury the dead. So great was the ferocity of the blaze following the disaster that nothing less than such a massive mobilization of emergency personnel would stand a chance. All were left stunned, shocked, and wondering how such a catastrophe could be visited on their homes with no warning of any kind. In the words of Tim Pellerin, fire chief for Rangeley, Maine, “It was like a World War II bombing zone. There was just block after block of everything incinerated. All that was left were foundations and chimneys. Everything burned. The buildings, the asphalt, the grass, the trees, the telephone poles. Just about everything was incinerated.” In the investigations following Lac-Megantic many facts came to light as to how so much harm could be caused, proving without question the devastation was no fluke but a very real, predictable possibility.

One must first be wondering how a trainload of crude oil could do so much harm and why emergency services were so hard-pressed to contain the damage. This is thanks to the unique properties of bakken crude. With an incredibly low flash point range stretching from 50 degrees centigrade to -59 degrees centigrade bakken crude is an incredibly volatile substance. This is due to its chemical properties and also thanks to the substances and techniques used to extract and refine bakken crude from the tar sand fields. Equally crucial to this deadly equation is the unsafe, out of date DOT-111 train cars used to haul the goods which are not pressurized or properly sealed for handling such cargoes.

The nature of the substance itself is only the beginning. At Lac-Megantic, and similar disasters since, this hazardous substance didn't just ignite and start a fire. As anyone with any experience with incendiaries as mundane as lighter fluid could tell you flammable fuel alone is not sufficient to create such deadly blasts. What happened here is the material, and cars, behaved in a fashion that is best described in the same terms reserved for the most deadly piece of military hardware short of nuclear warheads: a thermobaric weapon also known as a fuel air bomb. How these forms of ordnance work, as exemplified by the US military GBU-43B MOAB, nicknamed the Mother of All Bombs, is based on basic, and nasty, chemistry. Instead of simply packing a housing full of explosives a thermobaric weapon has packed a combination of blast material and explosive gases released prior to detonation. These gases mix with the air surrounding the ordnance before detonation, making it so the bomb can use not only its explosive materials but also the oxygen in the air as fuel for the weapon. This is why they are most commonly known as fuel air bombs. The result is a blast potential that greatly exceeds the potency of conventional explosives.

A demonstration of a simple fuel-air bomb in action

When used on a battlefield the results are devastating.  The MOAB itself is a massive piece of hardware, weighing in at a not-insubstantial 18,000 pounds, and is designed for taking out hardened targets or more simply wiping a battlefield completely clean.  This weapon is not used often and whenever it is unleashed the roaring firestorms triggered leave nothing in their wake, incinerating people and tossing aside tanks and buildings like stacks of playing cards.  As can be seen here the power of these weapons is truly awesome to behold.

A MOAB in action

As terrifying as this reaper's scythe is what was unleashed on Lac-Megantic was even worse.  According to oil industry whistleblower Ron Carstens the damage inflicted by that one bakken crude train had ten times the blast force and raw destructive power of a single MOAB.

The Lac-Megantic disaster

Making matters worse there are few, if any, firefighting departments who are equipped to handle such a devastating accident. According to Geoff Simpson of the Washington State Council of Firefighters the danger and damage potential of a Lac-Megantic disaster is worse than a fully-loaded and fully-fueled 747 jumbo jet crash. In his own words, “even the best-equipped fire departments in Washington state would not be able to handle a disaster like Lac-Megantic”, a statement with truly alarming implications given the sheer volume of bakken crude being moved through Washington to ports on the Puget Sound and in Oregon.

This leaves little doubt this material is incredibly hazardous yet there are some who will, inevitably, respond it is possible to handle such cargoes safely as to prevent future disasters. Leaving aside this argument ignores other catastrophes like the derailment, spilling of over 300,000 gallons, and subsequent fire and evacuation in Lynchburg, Virginia the people who actually handle these cargoes beg to differ. According to anonymous sources inside the rail industry there is a growing consensus among rail crews there is no way to move bakken crude safely. The volatility of the material alone is enough to raise alarm but, never content to pass up an opportunity to squeeze further blood from stones with no regard for where it comes from so long as it flows, the rail industry has decided to double-down on an already incredibly reckless bet.

Across the North American rail industry, from Burlington Northern-Santa Fe to Union Pacific and CN, rail executives are pushing for reducing the number of crews on all trains including bakken bombs to a grand total of one crew member per train. They claim advances in automation and computer technology make additional crew unnecessary, arguing it is perfectly safe to move everything from cereal and passengers to bakken and nuclear bombs with one person on the train. These arrogant assertions sweep aside the very real consequences of such a spectacularly ill-conceived policy. The most obvious is that of crew fatigue. In spite of the claims made by industry operatives working at and for the C-level masters of the universe there is no question among rail crew even the most sophisticated computers in the field cannot react faster than a well-trained human brain. For that mind to react properly it needs to be rested, free to focus on what is necessary, and be ready for anything. Reducing total crew size to one per train, for everything from small haulers to two mile oil snakes, means there is far more work and stress placed on the sole crew. Not only do they have to worry about their cargo, which is often not fully loaded and as a liquid substance tends to slosh, shift, and cause other problems in handling movement, they also have to watch the tracks and take care of all other necessary work to keep the train running. It was thanks to the creeping single-crew policy Lac-Megantic happened as the lone train crew that day was at the end of their already long shift and seeking out much-needed rest, a fact Canadian rail executives worked hard to keep from the public.

It is not only in the realm of train crews these cargoes pose a clear and present danger to every community along the rail lines. Following with the neo-liberal mantra of cutting costs, with the obvious exception of executive compensation, rail companies have greatly neglected basic maintenance on engines and tracks. As the Canadian Transit Safety Board determined in their final report on Lac-Megantic it was the lack of necessary maintenance on the engine hauling the bakken that led directly to the train cars rolling off track and derailing. Similar safety problems have cropped up throughout the industry, raising the very relevant question of whether or not the rail executives are at all interested in anything beyond the bottom line.

Beyond the immediate dangers posed by bakken bombs by rail there are additional hidden costs the rail barons have neglected to reveal to the public. In their heedless pursuit of more money no matter the cost they have wreaked havoc on North American rail transit. In an age when the demand for rail freight is greatly outstripping existing rolling stock to move goods the mushrooming volume of bakken crude by rail is exerting growing pressure on every single other form of cargo moving by rail. Everything from local commuter networks to Amtrak have seen trains delayed by hours to make way for bakken bomb trains. Other cargoes have suffered similarly with grain shipments and foodstuffs, including time-sensitive perishable goods, forced to sit on sidings or rot in silos while bakken crude trains roll by. Yet even with these drawbacks and dangers the volume of crude being moved by rail is only increasing as oil and rail see only the money to be made, not the lives that will be lost.

One must be wondering what can be done about this clear and present danger to life, communities, and the environment. Unfortunately there is little information on where, when, and how many of these trains are running across North America. For Americans the prospects are grim as rail companies, in spite of a recent Department of Transportation emergency order forcing them to turn over information on the location of bakken bombs to state emergency services, are fighting tooth and nail to prevent the disclosure of this information to the public. Even where the information has been released the rail companies are often slow in providing full disclosure. Adding further insult to injury the DOT has opted for allowing rail companies to handle replacing old, dangerous DOT-111 cars on a purely voluntary basis. The short, depressing answer to the question of how many of these MOABs on rail are rolling across the continent and through your communities is quite simply we have no idea. In reaction to this citizens are taking action to monitor, report, and track the location of bakken crude trains. One such site with an easy to use form, accessible by smartphone, has been set up to build a real-time, up to the minute database tracking the location of the bomb trains. Yet even with this information being collected and assembled there really are only two effective responses to saving a community from becoming the next Lac-Megantic: evacuating everyone in the blast zone or bringing about a complete, unequivocal, and total end to the movement of bakken crude by rail by the most effective means necessary.