WHITEFISH – Lac-Mégantic means “lake where the fish gather” in the Abénaki language. It’s a large freshwater lake bordered by a charming tourist town in far eastern Quebec.
They say the blanket of oil that spread through downtown Lac-Mégantic two summers ago was like a flowing river of flame after a runaway train loaded with Bakken shale oil wrecked and exploded there.
Late-night revelers on the terrace at the Musi-Café, a bar at the center of the explosions, fled as balls of fire leaped three times the height of downtown buildings. Dozens inside the bar didn’t live to see that much.
The blazing oil entered the town’s storm sewer system, emerging as towers of fire from drains and manholes. At least 30 buildings were destroyed and more than a square mile of downtown Lac-Mégantic was razed. Days later, the heat was so intense rescue workers had to work in 15-minute shifts.
“The scene is like one you see after a big forest fire,” the local fire chief said. “There are only parts of the buildings left, trees have been completely burnt, there is no grass left, the cars are charred. This is total destruction.”
Of the 47 people who died that July night, the remains of five were never found. They are presumed to have been incinerated.
“We will rebuild our town,” the mayor of Lac-Mégantic said a month later. “But at the same time, we have to accept that it won’t be the one we knew. Very old buildings, heritage and architecture all disappeared.”
At first, no one realized the magnitude of the destruction, she said.
“Now we are starting to understand the consequences.”
Like Lac-Mégantic, Whitefish is a busy resort town of 6,000 on the banks of a large freshwater lake of the same name, an hour’s drive from the U.S.-Canada border.
As in Lac-Mégantic, a major railroad runs through Whitefish. Two to three 100-car oil trains pass through daily on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, each carrying up to 3 million gallons of potential destruction from the Bakken region.
A major crude oil tanker disaster has never occurred in Whitefish or, for that matter, anywhere along the hundreds of miles of BNSF track in Montana since the Bakken began to boom.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not on the minds of emergency responders and city officials up and down the line, who are compelled to ask the question: What if it does?
Wrecks have been happening with alarming regularity elsewhere as oil-by-rail shipments soared from less than 11,000 carloads on U.S. Class I railroads in 2009 to more than half a million five years later, according to Association of American Railroads numbers.
Word surfaced in February of a U.S. Department of Transportation report predicting 15 derailments of trains hauling crude oil or ethanol in 2015 and an average of 10 a year over the next 20 years. Those crashes could conceivably cost billions of dollars in damage and claim hundreds of lives.
The report surfaced in the midst of a spate of derailments from Feb. 14 through March 7 in Ontario, West Virginia, Illinois and again in Ontario, 23 miles from the first wreck. Each involved new, fortified oil tank cars that ruptured nonetheless. In rural Mount Carbon, West Virginia, 19 cars carrying crude from the Bakken were engulfed in flames, spouting spectacular fireballs hundreds of feet into the winter sky. The wreckage burned for nearly three days.
All four incidents, as well as others in the 19 months since the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, occurred in rural settings, which describes almost every mile of track in Montana. None resulted in fatalities. In late 2013, five months after the Lac-Mégantic explosion, a BNSF train hauling 106 cars of Bakken crude exploded outside Casselton, North Dakota, near Fargo, after colliding with a grain train.
A mile farther down the track and it would have taken much of Casselton with it.
Say the cat’s already out of the bag, the tempest out of the teapot. Say oil tankers at the Whitefish yard have derailed, caught fire and exploded, not 200 yards from downtown and barely a block away from Whitefish Middle School and its 490 students.
Is Whitefish ready?
Emergency responders see the world in worst-case scenarios.
“I can imagine a hot summer day, lots of tourists in town, just as Amtrak passes by,” Whitefish Fire Chief Joe Page said.
Page’s paid staff at the fire department isn’t large, but it’s as well-trained to handle an oil train explosion as any.
Last year, six Whitefish firefighters spent four days in Colorado training for just such a railroad disaster.
More and more fire departments and other first responders from across the nation are taking advantage of a $5 million training and tuition assistance program developed by the railroads through a February 2014 agreement between the Department of Transportation and the Association of American Railroads. The specialized crude-by-rail courses are held at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center near Pueblo, Colorado.
Firefighters and other responders also train in the rail yards with BNSF fire specialty crews from Texas, learning to use firefighting and river-booming equipment that’s kept at the old roundhouse in west Whitefish.
Page said as first responders on the scene at a catastrophic crash in town, firefighters would have lifesaving as their top priority.
“What life safety issue can we deal with, what are the proper evacuations and what rescues can we safely do with our limited manpower?” he posed.
The fire department has two predesignated evacuation sites south of the tracks and outside the half-mile danger zone that experts suggest. That way, when more is known about the extent of the emergency, evacuees are in known locations and can be kept in the loop.
In a sense, Whitefish fire and police departments have already self-evacuated. Previously located downtown, they moved into a new emergency services center a mile to the south five years ago.
“We were a block and a half away from the railroad tracks, so that was part of the idea,” said Assistant Police Chief Mike Ferda. “If all the emergency responders were unable to respond, it doesn’t do us much good.”
Page said that's his firefighters' first question at a trainyard crash.
“We never quite know what’s in each car, and then of course with chemicals, when they mix, they become a whole new problem,” he said. “So when we respond it’s not just for the Bakken oil. It’s anything that’s coming through.”
Rail tank cars are marked with rows of numbers and letters. The second line from the top gives the commodity name, which in the case of a flaming or leaking car would be read “with binoculars and from a distance,” said Page.
The engineer and conductor of the train carry a manifest that details what each car in the train is carrying. They're usually the best source of information, Page said.
The decision to quell an oil fire is not cut-and-dried. Things like wind direction and surrounding structures have to be weighed.
“It’s very dependent on the circumstance and potentially whatever cargo might be involved,” said Chad Nicholson, assistant fire chief in Missoula and chairman of the local emergency and disaster planning committees. “It’s definitely an option to let it burn, and sometimes that’s the best option. You’ve just got to weigh the lesser of two evils. Letting it burn might be a better environmental option than letting it run off into ground or surface water.”
Page said in any case, his first job is to assure an adequate water supply.
“You need a lotta, lotta, lotta water,” he said. “Before you fight the fire, you need to cool tank cars down. Unless you have the water on hand, don’t do it. If you can’t cool the metal, it’s just going to keep reigniting.”
There are hydrants in the Whitefish rail yard. Outside town, access can be an issue and water must be trucked in or pumped from a water source like the Stillwater River or Whitefish Lake. The fire department has 3,000-gallon tanks and there’s another large one on each of BNSF's firefighting trailer.
First responders soon give way to a more multipronged effort.
“We know the cavalry is coming,” said Page.
The fire department and BNSF enjoy a good relationship. Page got a call from a company official last week informing him a second firefighting “foam trailer" was on the way. Also at their disposal is a boom trailer carrying equipment designed to stem the spread of an oil slick on a river or lake.
BNSF sent a team up from Texas last year to train Page and his men on the equipment, and the team comes to town to do an annual inspection.
The railroad keeps more than 200 trained hazmat responders at 60 locations on its multistate network, including Whitefish and Havre, according to spokesman Matt Jones. They take the lead but can expect assistance from Kalispell Regional HazMat Team, one of six funded by the state of Montana, as well as another from Missoula if the emergency warrants.
BNSF relies on a number of contractors such as Kennedy/Jenks Consulting, which keeps an office of three engineers and a staff scientist in Whitefish to deal with environmental issues. Page said the firefighting company from Texas can take a private jet from Fort Worth, where BNSF is headquartered, and be anywhere in the country within six hours.
“Whitefish Fire has a really good connection with the railroad,” said Nikki Stephan, emergency planner for the Flathead County Office of Emergency Services. “They understand that relationship you’re going to need in an incident like you’re talking about.”
Stephan coordinates the Local Emergency Planning Committee, which regularly brings together all the players who'd be involved in a railroad disaster, including BNSF and the regional hazmat team.
For each of the past three years, the committee has orchestrated an all-day training exercise in the valley. Stephan said this summer’s drill may involve a worst-case-scenario oil train spill and explosion in Whitefish.
In such a case, Page said, the incident command post would be at the fire department. All responders, local and otherwise, are automatically plugged into an incident command system, a concept based on the management hierarchy of the U.S. Navy that over the years was adapted by firefighters and, after the 9/11 attacks, by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
One of every three freight carloads in the United States originates on a BNSF railroad. But in 2013 four of every five carloads of crude oil and natural gas start on a BNSF line.
Montana Rail Link traffic on Montana’s southern route is included in both ratios – MRL is a BNSF short-line road and connects to BNSF lines on each end. By far the majority of loaded oil trains in western Montana, some 2.5 a day, pass through Whitefish rather than Missoula.
According to MRL, 53 loaded oil trains, or one a week, came through Missoula in 2014.
"This was less than 1 percent of our total volume," said spokesman Jim Lewis, adding that the number dipped to just nine in the first three months of 2015.
“We’re not as concerned as we would be on the Hi-Line, just based on the sheer volume,” said Nicholson, the Missoula assistant fire chief. “But these trains are usually 100 cars long, and so they’re carrying a large volume of oil. Plus we do have larger populations (on the southern route), so there’s a little more exposure that way.”
The bulk of MRL’s hazardous material shipments originate in Missoula. For more than 15 years, white tanker cars of the “Gas Local” have been seen regularly transporting gas to Thompson Falls to bridge a gap in the Yellowstone Pipeline across the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Nicholson said from the fire department's standpoint, those loads have gone without a hitch. But they’ve afforded Missoula’s emergency planners a head start in preparations for oil train mishaps.
“We’ve really thought about these kinds of situations quite a bit in the past,” he said.
“We build our emergency operations plans so that they are scalable from bread-and-butter, everyday calls to worst-case scenarios. Part of that is breaking it down to core capabilities that we feel we need to be able to provide,” said Adriane Beck, Missoula County’s director of emergency services.
Montana Rail Link’s willingness to take part in emergency planning and response training helps, Beck said. MRL also goes “one step beyond as far as voluntary restrictions they’re putting on speeds as they bring trains through populated areas.”
But that doesn’t mean Bakken oil trains, and their potential destruction, aren’t on Missoula's radar. The county already has a reverse 9-1-1 notification system in place for all land lines, and Beck is urging those with cellphones to get connected by going to smart911.com.
Last year, emergency responders staged a full-scale emergency drill of a mock plane crash at Missoula International Airport. It was the culmination of three years of planning coordination and tabletop exercises.
It’s time to start on the next three-year cycle. Beck said it will likely be capped in 2017 by the oil train wreck no one wants to see.
“We’ll be dealing with a large-scale, multiday hazardous material event,” she said. “It could be for anything that comes through the county, chlorine or what have you. But you could probably make the conclusion that it’s Bakken crude.”