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Explosions put Bakken crude oil on state rail radar

About 18 months ago, Illinois safety experts noted the heavily publicized explosions of trains carrying crude oil from the North Dakota Bakken formation through other states and Canada and realized many of those trains were coming through this state.

That led to more training for firefighters and other first responders, including in several towns in this region. Because of the additional training, local and state officials and the railroads are better prepared to handle a major incident, said Kevin Reed, operations branch director for Homeland Security and Emergency Management under the Illinois Department of Public Safety.

Many Bakken trains travel along tracks on both sides of the Mississippi River in this region, heading to an oil field south of Lake Michigan before they can continue east, Reed said.

The Illinois Department of Transportation said trains are used because the Bakken oil field is so remote it lacks enough pipelines.

“Today, more than two-thirds of the field’s daily production of 1.2 million barrels is shipped by rail, with most of it moving through Illinois,” MnDOT states.

“Five to seven fully loaded trains of Bakken crude oil pass through the state each day, each carrying about 3.3 million gallons of highly flammable, light, sweet crude,” according to MnDOT. “This increase in train traffic, coupled with a steadily growing railroad business in other products, including grain, iron ore, sand and containers, has caused increased blockages at grade crossings. These blockages delay emergency response vehicles on a regular basis and limit community circulation.”

Black tank cars that might carry crude also come through Rochester, but they aren’t carrying Bakken crude, Reed said. But they might be carrying other hazardous chemicals, he said.

Illinois firefighters and others involved in emergency response have been trained in handling many problems, but Bakken crude is different, Reed said.

“We got to really understand what the product is, and after a couple of the incidents that happened up in North Dakota and Canada, it really opened up our view as to some of the different properties of this particular product,” he said. “(We said) wait a minute, there may be something different. Bakken oil acts a little more like gasoline than it does how we would think of traditional crude oil.”

Canadian tar sands oil, on the other hand, doesn’t act like Bakken crude, he said.

Related: North Dakota oil shipments by rail drop below 50 percent

Reed said his department and railroads reached out to local first responders and explained why Bakken is different. “We just wanted to take them up a little bit more on this particular product.”

About 3,000 firefighters, emergency medical technicians, police and even elected officials were trained in Illinois. Also, firefighters from 80 of the 300 departments along the tracks went to a special school, funded by railroads in Pueblo, Colo., which gave even more training, Reed said.

Besides learning how to fight fires, they also worked on evacuations and other responses associated with explosions.

A joint exercise with Wisconsin officials was held in La Crescent because the two states would cooperate in case of an explosion or a spill, Reed said.

Reed emphasized the additional training could be used in other emergencies, not just Bakken crude. In fact, not all black tank cars going along the Mississippi have Bakken crude, he said. Those going southeast to northwest are probably empty, and trains going any direction might carry other products.

Because of the additional training, Illinois is much better prepared in case of a major explosion, Reed said. “I believe we are, and by ready, I mean we have a tiered approach to how this would happen,” he said.

The tiers are that small spills could be handled by local departments, but a bigger one might require the state and railroad experts to come in. A call to the state could activate many experts and a lot more equipment to stop a fire or contain a spill, Reed said.

Another key change has been that local responders have much faster access to finding what’s on trains. They have been trained in how to read the labels on tank cars or get it from the train’s crew. “The most accurate information is with that train and that train crew because as that train moves, it adds and picks up cars,” Reed said.

If they can’t get it from the crew, there are apps for cellphones that will give them the information in minutes, he said.

“Really identifying what’s in that car is of the utmost importance to figure out what to do because some things aren’t going to do anything, and some things are more of a challenge to the immediate area,” he said.

The average citizen can even help local responders, he said. Citizens can make sure they tell local agencies how they can be reached if they don’t have land lines and also know what to take with them in an evacuation.

“If you have to evacuate your house in the middle of the night, what are the five things you need to bring?” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the event is; it matters that we are evacuating you.”