Illinois oil train derailment involved safer tank cars
GALENA, Ill. -- The rail cars that split open and burst into flames during a western Illinois oil train derailment this week had been retrofitted with protective shields to meet a higher safety standard than federal law requires, according to railroad officials.
The fire continued to burn Friday, a day after the derailment in a rural area south of the city of Galena. No injuries were reported, but the accident was the latest in a series of failures for the safer tank-car model that has led some people calling for even tougher requirements.
"It certainly begs that question when ... those standards failed to prevent leakage and explosions that threaten human safety and environmental contamination," said Steve Barg, director of the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation, which owns a nature preserve several hundred yards from the derailment site.
BNSF Railway said the train's tank cars were a newer model known as the 1232. It was designed during safety upgrades voluntarily adopted by the industry four years ago in hopes of keeping cars from rupturing during derailments.
But 1232 standard cars have split open in three other accidents in the past year, including one in West Virginia last month. That train was carrying 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude when it derailed, shooting fireballs into the sky, leaking oil into a waterway and burning down a house. The home's owner was treated for smoke inhalation, but no one else was injured.
In Thursday's accident in Illinois, 21 of the train's 105 cars derailed in an area where the Galena River meets the Mississippi. BNSF Railway said a resulting fire spread to five rail cars. Firefighters could only access the derailment site by a bike path, said Galena Assistant Fire Chief Bob Conley.
Emergency personnel were still working to contain the blaze Friday but described the area as "stable." The Federal Railroad Administration was investigating.
The train had 103 cars loaded with crude oil from the Northern Plains' Bakken region, along with two buffer cars loaded with sand, according to company spokesman Andy Williams. The cause of the derailment hasn't been determined.
The accident occurred 3 miles south of Galena in a wooded, hilly area popular with tourists. The area is alongside part of the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge, but there was no indication of any oil contamination there so far, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Georgia Parhan.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it was monitoring the air, taking water samples and setting up booms to keep leaking oil from reaching nearby waterways.
As of June, BNSF was hauling 32 Bakken oil trains per week through the surrounding Jo Daviess County, according to information disclosed to Illinois emergency officials.
Recent derailments have increased public concern about the safety of shipping crude by train. The Association of American Railroads says oil shipments by rail jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008, to 500,000 in 2014, driven by the boom in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana. Pipeline limitations in the region force 70 percent of the crude to move by rail.
Since 2006, the U.S. and Canada have seen at least 22 oil-train accidents involving a fire, derailment or significant amount of fuel spilled, according to an Associated Press examination of federal accident records.
The wrecks have intensified pressure on President Barack Obama's administration to approve tougher standards for railroads and tank cars, despite industry complaints that it could cost billions and slow freight deliveries.
Oil industry officials had been opposed to further upgrading the 1232 cars because of costs. But late last year they changed their position and joined with the railway industry to support some upgrades, although they asked for time to make the improvements.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin released a statement Friday calling on the White House to quickly finalize its rule to strengthen standards, saying the increasing number of train derailments nationwide was unacceptable.
"There is mounting evidence that stricter standards are needed in the handling of Bakken crude, which appears to be particularly volatile," the Illinois Democrat said. "The safety of our communities depends on it."