COEUR d’ALENE — Even though agencies and companies are acting to ease fears that the next oil-by-rail catastrophe is just around the corner, some observers say only time will tell if those steps are sufficient.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Shannon Williamson, executive director of Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper in Sandpoint.
“It’s one thing to (make promises that increase safety). It’s another to see it come to fruition.”
BNSF Railway moves an average of 1.5 loaded oil trains through North Idaho each day, said Gus Melonas, BNSF spokesman. They roll through Sandpoint, Athol, Rathdrum and Hauser from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and Montana to coastal refineries.
An oil train typically has about 100 rail cars and each car holds about 29,000 gallons.
Melonas said the volume of oil trains coming through North Idaho is expected to increase, but he declined to speculate on how much.
“It’s all demand-driven, but we certainly know it’s a growing trend,” he said.
Union Pacific, the other railroad that transports commodities through the Panhandle, carries crude that is interspersed with other products, said Aaron Hunt, UP spokesman.
U.S. crude oil production is forecast to reach 8.5 million barrels a day by the end of 2014, up from 5 million gallons a day in 2008, according to government figures. Railroads transported more than 400,000 carloads of crude in 2013, up from 9,500 in 2008.
There have been three fiery explosions involving trainloads of Bakken crude in the past year. The most alarming was last July, when 47 people were killed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. At least 10 times since 2008, trains hauling oil across North American have derailed and spilled crude with most touching off fires.
Canada’s Transportation Safety Board on Thursday revealed that the oil aboard the train in Quebec was as explosive as gasoline, dashing theories that it may have been contaminated by hydrogen sulfide or fracking fluids. Such theories may have led to technical solutions to the trend of exploding oil trains.
“It’s very dangerous to move this stuff by rail,” said Eddie Scher, Sierra Club spokesman.
However, according to the American Association of Railroads, 99.99 percent of all hazardous materials shipments, including crude, make it without a leak caused by accidents.
Read the full story, including: steps to enhance safety, emergency readiness, expansion plans and the bigger picture.