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Colorado Keeps A Wary Eye As Crude Oil By Rail Shipments Rise

Grace Hood
Workers in the midst of clean-up efforts at the site of a train derailment and crude oil spill located south of Greeley, Colo., May 12, 2014.

From 2012 to 2013, the transport of crude oil by major freight railroads spiked, increasing nearly 75 percent according to the American Association of Railroads. Even though crude oil accounted for just over 1 percent of overall 2013 traffic, there’s growing public concern about spills and other hazards.

This trend is playing out across the Niobrara formation, along Colorado’s eastern plains, and resource-rich Weld County. As the state’s oil production boom continues, exceeding the capacity of traditional oil pipelines, more companies are shipping crude by rail.

Over the past two years, two crude loading facilities have been built and the capacity doubled at a third site in Weld County. On May 9, 2014, for the first time in nearly a decade, this region saw its first crude oil tanker derailment. Six cars of a 100-car Union Pacific train derailed south of Greeley, Colorado, spilling about 5,000 gallons of oil.

BNSF Railway said on average it operates three crude oil trains per day through Colorado.

That caught the attention of Weld County’s Office of Emergency Management.

“We really want to be able to say, ‘OK we know individually at least from our county standpoint of what’s being transported through,’ whether it be crude oil, whether it be other chemicals like chlorines, and hydrous ammonias — those types of things,” said Roy Rudisill, office director.

When his team encountered the May oil spill, he was surprised his agency wasn’t near the top of the railroad’s notification list.

“Having those conversations and having this incident has actually helped in the communication of if there’s another incident, we know how to get the proper communication, the right information during the incident,” Rudisill said.

A New Federal Rule

Federal regulators are especially concerned about shipments of crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada. Bakken crude wasn’t involved in the Greeley spill, but it is believed by some to be more volatile and connected to fiery tank car accidents, one of which killed 47 people in Quebec in 2013.

A new rule from the U.S. Department of Transportation is focusing on Bakken crude shipments; it requires railroads to share route details and the amount of oil carried in shipments of 35 or more rail cars. Lloyd Burton, a University of Colorado professor studying rail transport of hazardous materials said the rule is a good start.

“Up until this time we’ve had a real problem in that local emergency responders have had almost no idea of the contents of the trains that were rolling through their communities,” Burton said.

In Burton’s view it’s information that communities are owed, but that information may be something many will never get. A number of states have signed nondisclosure agreements with the railroads, with the railroads saying it’s a security and competition issue.

Colorado has not signed any agreement. Nevertheless, Colorado’s Director of Emergency Management Dave Hard said shipment details will only be released to emergency responders and specific state and local government officials.

“We have to balance everything with guidance we receive from the Department of Transportation,” Hard said. “It’s important for us to follow federal guidance that’s been provided by the Department of Transportation.”

Non-Bakken Shipment Details Are Scarce

When it comes to transport of non-Bakken crude in Colorado, few details are known or revealed by railroads to the public. Union Pacific Railroad declined to share information. BNSF Railway — the nation’s largest oil by rail shipper — said on average it operates three crude oil trains per day through Colorado.

Weld emergency office manager Roy Rudisill said he is able to access historical shipment information from railroads through his county. He uses the information to plan for emergency scenarios.

What keeps him up at night are the things he hasn’t planned for.

“You hope you plan everything,” Rudisill said. “But somewhere along the line, there’s always something that is going to come up.”

The cause for the Greeley accident is still under investigation. The team is expected to wrap up its work by the end of July.

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