City leaders pepper BNSF officials with questions about oil trains

Johan Hellman, executive general director of State Government Affairs for BNSF, fields questions from the Auburn City Council during a presentation Monday at City Hall - Robert Whale/Auburn Reporter
Johan Hellman, executive general director of State Government Affairs for BNSF, fields questions from the Auburn City Council during a presentation Monday at City Hall
— image credit: Robert Whale/Auburn Reporter

City leaders across Washington might be forgiven a bit of nervousness about all those sober black tanker cars that slip through their cities 1-to-1½ times a day along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks.

Even if they don't know exactly what they're carrying, local officials know there may be shale oil from the Dakotas inside, or other volatile chemicals.

Some of that wariness showed in questions Auburn City Council members lobbed at Johan Hellman, executive general director of State Government Affairs for BNSF, and company spokesperson Courtney Wallace during a BNSF presentation Monday at City Hall.

Mostly, the questions centered on safety, and whether Auburn, or any other town or city, gets to know what the cars are actually hauling at any given time.

Hellman said BNSF's leaders share these concerns.

Hellman said BNSF has been leading the effort to lobby the federal government for stiffer, federal tank car design standards. Indeed, he said, a month and a half ago, the company announced it was requesting proposals from manufacturers interested in building 5,000 brand new, top-of-the-line tanker cars. Those cars are to compose BNSF's first-ever fleet of tanker cars.

The company expects to hear back from interested manufacturers later this year, or by January of 2015.

"This is really the state of the art in tank-car technology," Hellman said. "No one else has made the investment we're making in these 5,000 cars. These are by far the safest cars that will be out there on the line. They are similar to cars that run other, more volatile hazardous materials like propane, stuff like that. We've dealt with similar cars with great success."

Safety first

The new cars, according to Hellman, will bristle with safety improvements.

For instance, whereas a regular DOT-111 car today has a 7/16 inch, steel-shell body, BNSF's new generation of cars will bulk up to a 9/16-inch steel shell.

The new cars are to come with a large thermal jacket along the length of the car. The idea there, Hellman said, is to prevent, say, a fire on the tracks from heating up whatever is inside the cars.

The cars are to carry a full, half-inch-thick shield on each end to protect the contents in the event of a collision. Another innovation — a more robust pressure release device on the bottom of each car to enable handlers to disengage valve handles, thus preventing any unintentional openings.

Councilmember Largo Wales wanted to know what BNSF planned to haul in its fleet to be.

"They are designated, really, for crude," Hellman responded.

About a month and a half ago, Hellman said, the federal government announced new standards for moving such commodities, regulations that set lower speeds in major urban areas and new standards for how they are handled. The upshot is that the speed limit in urban areas will be a maximum of 40 mph.

"If you look at any major downtown area, the way those tracks are classified designates how fast the speeds are," Hellman said. "So, in any of these major urban areas, for instance, downtown Seattle or downtown Tacoma, places like that, you are not certainly not going to see trains moving faster than 20 miles per hour, probably 10 mph. That 40 mph, that's mostly in the outlying areas."

Councilmember Bill Peloza noted recent talk in the media about identifying the contents of these oil tankers.

"Some of it is what they call sweet crude oil, and some of it is shale oil, which is more volatile. Can you address that?" Peloza asked.

Hellman said that with every major rail incident, there's a federal investigation, and the industry looks into them to see what it can learn. Such was the case with the oil tanker car accident that recently leveled a small town in Canada.

"One of the things that came across in that report was that there had been potential mislabeling of some of those loads of that commodity," Hellman said. "And the reason they think that's the case is that there are inconsistencies in that particular product. For example, if you were to sink an oil well in Saudi Arabia, there's a pretty good chance that there would be a consistency in the product you bring up, so that what you brought up at 3 p.m. would be the same thing as at 5 p.m. But because of the technology that they are using to extract these commodities in the Dakotas and elsewhere, there's some different volatility in that, and inconsistencies."

New standards

Hellman said the federal government is already at work on new labeling standards, and the industry is trying to adapt to that, too.

"I can't tell you that there's an answer at this point," Hellman told Peloza. "I can tell you that there's a federal awareness that's inevitably going to lead to changes, and there's already changes in the way these commodities are handled."

"When you have those 5,000 next generation tank cars, would you require that those be only cars used for transport of certain products?" asked Mayor Nancy Backus.

"Undetermined," Hellman said.

Hellman said "other industry partners" are making commitments similar to BNSF's. For example, he said, Tesoro is committed to upgrading its entire fleet to new, safer tanker car standards implemented in October of 2011. He said Tesoro has committed to move its products using only those cars.

"And the delivery time for the 5,000?" asked Councilman Rich Wagner.

"As soon as possible," Hellman said. "We have to get the RFP (request for proposals) out. We have to get back proposals from the different vendors who are able to do that and establish those time lines. So it's a little bit of a work in progress right now. Remember, this RFP only went out a month and a half ago. And we all deal with government contracts and things like that, so we understand that major infrastructure commitments can take a little while."

On average, Wallace said, 1½ trains make their way through the state of Washington every day.

"We do have the three East Coast routes. We have Stevens Pass, and we also have Stampede Pass," she said. "Again, because of federal law and safety and security, we don't talk about where we route our hazmat trains, but we do share information with first responders in talking about those kind of issues."

"In terms of the content of tankers, either crude oil or shale-type oil, is there a way that we can know what's going through our city at one-and-one-half units per day?" Peloza asked. "Do we know?"

"I think most folks when they see a DOT-111 car or a tank car, they assume that they know what's in it," Hellman said. "But there's any number of hazardous materials that are moving on the railroad that aren't necessarily those things and have been moving for many years, decades, safely without a major incident. In terms of identifying what that is or working with first responders, yes, we are working on that."

Hellman said there will be a book of shipping documents and a placard on the trains to identify their contents to first responders. And the railroad stows caches of safety equipment in most of the major yards.

The railroad, Hellman added, conducts hazmat training across the state every year, from Vancouver to Spokane, and throughout the Puget Sound region.

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