Oil Trains in Michigan

On July 6, 2013 a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The explosion that occurred due to the derailment killed 47 people. Please take time to see if there is a route near you using this Interactive map of “bomb trains”.

Originally published by WoodTV8 on 4/23/2015

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Some call them “rolling soda cans” or “Ford Pintos” on rails because they are prone to bursting and burning.  According to the U.S. government, they are an “imminent hazard.” They’re talking about the long trains of North Dakota crude oil tank cars rolling across the country to refineries on the East Coast and their “startling” record of fiery wrecks.

A fire burns Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, after a train derailment near Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/The Register-Herald, Steve Keenan)
A fire burns Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, after a train derailment near Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/The Register-Herald, Steve Keenan)

There have been four flaming derailments already this year in the U.S. and Canada. The government says we can expect ten per year for some time to come because right now the only way to move the crude is by rail.

The North Dakota oil field boomed so fast there’s been no time to build pipelines to carry the crude. Millions of gallons of that oil roll through West Michigan every week.

Where and how many trains are on Michigan rails is a government secret as far as state officials are concerned.

Worried about the fiery derailments, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order last May telling the railroads to alert state emergency officials where the trains are running and how many pass through each state every week.

In Michigan, State Police emergency management officials passed it on to local emergency officials in 14 counties.

But so far they have refused to tell the public about the location and frequency of the danger rolling through our towns.

“It would be like giving somebody part of your playbook,” said MSP Capt. Chris Kelenske. “Because there are bad people out there who want to do bad things,” he says.

He agrees that someone bent on sabotage could just watch for the hundred car oil trains to pass.

“But should we really make it easier for them to do us harm? I think the answer to that is no,” he said.

Michigan is one of five states refusing to make the train routes public.

On the other side of that, the U.S. Department of Transportation has said it sees no security threat in releasing the information it required the railroads to give the states. It said railroads could ask the states to keep it quiet for business reasons.

Railroads have asked state emergency officials to sign confidentiality agreements. But in Michigan, Kelenske says he refused.

Some states have released the information. Kelenske says he’s talked about it with emergency managers in states that have released the information.

“We’ve had some pretty heated discussions about this,” Kelenske said.

In Montana, officials said telling the public would improve public safety by making people more aware of the danger.

Where the trains are is not hard to figure out. Target 8 Investigators quickly found out that one of the major carriers of North Dakota crude is the Canadian National Railway.

It has a track that runs from the Indiana line through Cass, Kalamazoo and Calhoun counties in West Michigan and on across the state to the Canadian border.

A web search quickly found video posted by a rail fan of one of those long oil trains rolling on that line outside of Flint.

Calls to local emergency people found them willing to talk about the crude oil trains rumbling through their communities;  small towns like Cassopolis, Marcellus and Vicksburg and population centers such as Battle Creek.

Some local officials say they were told to expect an estimated five to seven oil trains a week on that line. On rare occasions they might reroute an oil train through Grand Rapids if the usual route is blocked for some reason.

There could be more. The government’s emergency order applies only to trains carrying more than a million gallons of crude at a time.

“This is a different type of hazardous material,” said Kelenske. “It burns very hot.”

Some experts say the North Dakota crude is more volatile because it contains more flammable gasses such as butane.

And the crude is often hauled in rail cars the National Transportation Safety Board has been warning about since 1991.  It has recommended safety improvements and even newer tank cars with thicker walls.

But even some of the newer cars have burst and burned in recent crashes.

One of the reasons why there are more wrecks is that there are more oil trains. The number of rail cars carrying crude has rocketed with the oil boom.

In 2008, fewer than 10,000 rail cars hauled the oil. Last year, the number approached half a million.

“It’s scary.  It’s a scary deal,” said Vicksburg Village Manager Ken Schippers.

He sees the long trains of tank cars rattling through his small Kalamazoo County town several times a week.

“It does cause us concern here,” he said. “We’ve talked about it with our fire department.”

“These curves coming through here,” he said, standing on a crossing at the edge of town, “and the one across the lake over there.  If something would happen it would put this little town out of business.”

That fear ratchets up whenever people see the towering fireballs on national television as derailed crude trains burn. Just watching the video can make your knees weak and leave you wondering how anybody could fight a fire like that.

“We will do our best to mitigate the situation,” said Battle Creek Fire Chief Dave Schmaltz, “and put out the fire if we can and that’s going to be a challenge.”

He says Battle Creek has sent firefighters to Colorado to learn how to handle train derailments. The Department’s hazardous materials team leader, Capt. Mike Fleisher told 24 Hour News 8 they train for all hazards.

“We train for preparedness. We give all our firefighters in the city awareness classes on it,” said Fleisher.

Chief Schmaltz and Calhoun County’s Emergency Management boss Durk Dunham both say they get excellent cooperation from the Canadian National Railroad in preparing and planning.

Dunham says they even gave him one of their two-way radios so he can be wired into their system in case of emergency.

Chief Schmaltz says in case of a crude oil train derailment in Battle Creek his people would first move people out of harm’s way.  That’s their first priority in any disaster, he says.

Then depending on the specifics of the emergency, they would decide whether or not to try to put out the fire.

“When you’re talking crude oil or ethanol it takes a vast quantity of water plus foam products and we just, in the City of Battle Creek right now, don’t have enough foam to handle that,” said Schmaltz.

He says in some cases letting such a fire burn might be the better option to prevent crude oil running into drains and waterways.

He says the crude oil trains do worry him but that it’s just one of the hazards on rails and roads.

“I’ve got other things rolling out there,” Schmaltz said. “Ethanol and other types of chemicals that, you know, make the hair on the back of a fire chief’s neck stand up a little bit.”

When Target 8 investigators were watching the rails, we saw cars marked with hazard placards to show they were carrying other explosive materials like ethanol and butane, as well as sulfuric acid which fumes are dangerous to breath.

But the crude oil shipments have everybody’s attention right now.  It has some local officials double checking. In Cass County, Emergency Management leader Dave Smith says they are reviewing their plans and readiness because of it.

“We’re very concerned because the railroad goes through all our population centers,” said Smith. “We’re a small rural community so basically an accident would happen with the railway we would be pretty much on our own for the first several hours of the incident.”

Local officials can worry and prepare but they can’t do much to prevent a fiery derailment. That’s up to the train car owners, the railroads and the federal government.

The industry took some voluntary steps last year to improve safety. The U.S. Department of Transportation is considering some new rules.  Last week, it issued an emergency order limiting crude train speed to 40 mph in populated areas.

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