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A worker closes the gate Friday afternoon after moving rail cars to the loading dock where fuel is transferred from the Yellowstone Pipeline for transport around the Flathead Indian Reservation. The Missoula rail yard has been handling fuel of higher volatility since the 1990s, says Peter Nielsen of the Missoula City-County Health Department.

Missoula does get some of the Bakken crude oil that prompted a federal safety warning Thursday, but local officials say the community is prepared for fuel disasters.

“Bakken crude might be more explosive than other crude, but the refined products we see here are of fairly higher volatility,” Missoula City-County Health Department environmental health supervisor Peter Nielsen said Friday. “We have refined fuels shipped by rail from here to the west, and that’s been going on since the pipeline shut down back in the ’90s.”

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a safety alert about Bakken crude after railroad derailments in North Dakota, Alabama and Quebec caused catastrophic explosions. Railroads transported an estimated 400,000 tanker cars of petroleum in 2013.

The Lac-Megantic, Quebec, disaster destroyed much of the town center and killed at least 47 people. The Alabama incident in November caused no deaths, but burned an estimated 749,000 gallons of oil from 26 tanker cars.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the DOT stated “recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.”

The agency said it’s in the process of testing Bakken petroleum shipments to see if they have unusual gas content, corrosivity, toxicity, flammability or other characteristics that make them distinctive from other hazardous materials.

Phillips 66 Pipeline LLC operates the Yellowstone Pipeline, which transfers a variety of petroleum products to rail cars in Missoula for transport around the Flathead Indian Reservation to Thompson Falls. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes revoked Yellowstone Pipeline’s ability to cross the reservation in 1996 after repeated leaks and maintenance issues.

“Phillips 66’s fleet of railcars transport various types of domestic crudes, including Bakken, primarily to our East and West Coast refineries,” company spokesman Dennis Nuss said in an email. “We work closely with our shipping partners and customers to ensure that the railcars that carry our products are maintained and labeled properly and meet the proper design specifications and regulatory requirements. Our railcars are inspected at each loading and unloading facility. Our new crude-by-rail cars are constructed to meet or exceed the latest Association of American Railroads safety standards.”

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Missoula Fire Department Assistant Chief Chad Nicholson said hazardous materials training took on new intensity after the city became a load transfer depot for petroleum. But the new warnings likely won’t have much impact on disaster response.

“It’s certainly piquing our awareness,” Nicholson said. “But the push is coming more on how they (railroad workers) could align their loads up. There are certain restrictions, like on putting propane next to fuel in the railyard or how you stack certain hazardous materials behind each other.”

While the Conoco bulk plant handles about 25 cars of petroleum a day in Missoula, Nicholson said it doesn’t appear much of that is Bakken crude.

“From what I can tell, it looks like most of it is going around the Hi-Line and away from most major population centers,” Nicholson said.

Montana Rail Link spokeswoman Lynda Frost said the railroad follows procedures set by the DOT for hazardous materials.

“Trains transporting hazardous material, such as crude oil, are referred to as ‘key’ trains and are handled with more sensitivity than other trains,” Frost said in an email statement. “Crude supply provided to the Billings refineries is provided primarily by Canada with some from Wyoming.”

In 1997, a runaway freight train was intentionally derailed 20 miles east of Missoula after its brakes failed. No one was injured, although 49 of the 107 cars left the rails. A 19-car derailment near Alberton in 1996 released about 60 tons of poisonous chlorine gas, killing one person and hospitalizing at least 11 more.

“There’s risk associated with rail transport of refined and unrefined fuels,” Nielsen said. “And there are various other substances that are of concern, like chlorine gas or anhydrous ammonia. That kind of thing is always on our list. What if they have a derailment at the mouth of the Rattlesnake? There are only one or two ways out of that valley.”

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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