A Kentucky oil train terminal illustrates a persistent gap between the risks posed by increasing volumes of crude oil moving by rail and the training available to local first responders specifically for it.
Continental Refining, which operates a 5,500-barrel-a-day refinery in Somerset, Kentucky, announced this week that it plans to move oil and oil products through the Somerset Rail Park, an $8 million rail-to-truck cargo transfer facility that opened in 2007.
But no one on the 12-county hazardous material team that would respond to an oil spill or fire at the facility has received the training that’s been developed in the past few years for such incidents.
That’s in spite of a $2.6 million federal grant last year to Somerset’s Center for Rural Development to develop training for rural or volunteer firefighters to respond to oil train derailments.
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$8 million Federal funds earmarked to build the Somerset Rail Park
Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Congress tightened safety standards for shipping oil by rail in the wake of a string of fiery derailments across North America. The worst of those killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013. Last year alone, there were seven derailments involving oil and three involving ethanol across North America.
Continental declined to respond to questions about the safety of its Somerset operation, including whether the rail cars it uses meet the new federal standards and whether it had notified local emergency responders about the shipments and offered them training.
$2.6 million Federal grant to the Center for Rural Development for firefighter training
Doug Baker, the chief of the Somerset-Pulaski County Special Response team, said the refinery had a history of working well with the hazmat team and other local first responders.
Continental had not notified him specifically about its shipments to the Somerset Rail Park, Baker said, but the refinery had made an effort in the past to include the hazmat team and fire department in emergency planning.
Baker said the special response team had trained technicians at the refinery and helped develop its safety plan. In case of an oil train fire, he said, his team had access to a supply of firefighting foam in the county and the trucks to pump it.
In addition, the regional haz-mat team and other local emergency responders have trained for rail emergencies.
Norfolk-Southern, which has a line passing through the county, has offered training for local responders, including simulations involving tank cars.
“We’re as prepared as anyone can be for a railroad derailment,” he said. “The response here, to me, would be as good as any you would find anywhere in the state and maybe the nation.”
47 People killed in the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, oil train derailment in 2013
Railroads have offered new training opportunities to emergency responders since the Lac-Megantic disaster. Norfolk Southern, which serves the Somerset Rail Park, operates a safety train, a traveling classroom used to educate fire departments.
According to the safety train’s 2016 schedule, the closest it came to Somerset was Knoxville, Tennessee, about 100 miles away, in early August.
Norfolk Southern and other major railroads have also paid for firefighters from across the country to attend an advanced training class at the railroad industry’s testing facility near Pueblo, Colorado.
Baker said no one on his team had participated in the training in Tennessee or Colorado.
Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said first responders in Kentucky were welcome to contact the railroad about training opportunities by going to the safety train’s website.
1 million Barrels of oil a day transported in trains across the U.S. in 2014
At the peak in 2014, about 1 million barrels a day of oil were moving across the country by rail. But because of low oil prices and new pipeline capacity, that number has fallen nearly by half.
Continental declined to specify where it sources its oil, but the refinery is capable of refining the light, sweet crude that’s produced in North Dakota’s Bakken shale region.
According to an Environmental Protection Agency report, Continental’s Somerset refinery processed more than 200,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil recovered from the March 2015 derailment of a BNSF oil train in Galena, Illinois.
In 2015 alone, there were seven derailments involving oil and three involving ethanol across North America
The shippers of oil products and ethanol are supposed to begin phasing out older, less-protected tank cars in rail transportation starting in January 2018. New cars must be built with thicker shells, better crash protections and thermal blankets to protect from fire exposure. Older cars must be retrofitted with those features.
Depending on the type of product and the risk it poses, the older cars can be used through 2029, with a two-year extension possible if the industry can’t complete the retrofits fast enough.
In a series of stories over two years, McClatchy showed that fire departments across the country lacked the resources and training to deal with derailments of trains carrying millions of gallons of flammable liquids.
McClatchy also used open records laws in more than two dozen states, including Kentucky, to obtain information about large shipments of oil by rail.
In 2014, the federal government required railroads to notify first responders about the shipments. Norfolk Southern sued the Maryland Department of the Environment before it could release the records to McClatchy, but a judge eventually ruled against the railroad.
Estep, of the Lexington Herald-Leader, reported from Somerset, Kentucky.