15 Finds Out: Through Your Backyard

A CSX train with petroleum crude oil hazard placards crosses the St. Joe River.

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – The volume of crude oil being shipped via railroads is rising across the country. Much of it comes from North Dakota and is heading for the east coast. It’s a path that funnels millions of gallons directly through northeast Indiana every week.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said the increase in crude-by-rail poses a greater risk for incidents and recently ordered railroad companies to tell each state where and how often trains are hauling large amounts of the energy product.  Federal officials cited several oil train derailments in the U.S. and Canada as a reason for the order.

But some emergency responders in northeast Indiana had no idea about the growing threat traveling through their backyard, until 15 Finds Out began asking questions.

Energy independence

To understand the severity of that communications gap, one must first understand the reason for the rising number of oil trains.  More and more petroleum crude oil is being drilled at the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota.  Rail companies say it’s traveling to refineries in high quantities via the most economical option: rail.

“There’s an important development happening in this country and it’s happening here in this community,” said Dave Pidgeon, public relations manager for Norfolk Southern Corp. “We are moving towards greater energy independence.”

Quebec Oil Train explosion 15 Finds Out Through your backyard
A fireball shoots into the air following a deadly oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada in 2013.

Major incidents

But since the beginning of 2013, oil train derailments have caused major problems across the U.S. and Canada. One organization highlights 10 such accidents in that time frame.

On April 30, a CSX train carrying 105 crude oil tank cars derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia.  The highly flammable crude oil caught fire.  Emergency crews evacuated 350 people from their homes. Up to 30,000 gallons of petroleum crude oil spilled into a nearby river.

The most notable oil train derailment happened in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada on July 5, 2013.  An unmanned, runaway oil train carrying crude oil derailed, exploded, caught fire, and killed 47 people.  2,000 people had to be evacuated from the town.

“Imminent hazard”

The dramatic rise in oil trains combined with recent derailments caused the USDOT to file an emergency order in May.  Federal officials cited an “unsafe condition” or “unsafe practice” for crude-by-rail causing an “imminent hazard.”

The DOT ordered railroad companies to begin reporting to each state’s Emergency Response Commission. Beginning in June, railroads were to tell state officials the expected movement and frequency of trains transporting 1 million gallons or more of crude oil from North Dakota.

Norfolk Southern Corp. and CSX Transportation have lines in northeast Indiana. A media spokesperson for each company said they’re following the emergency order.

“We share information with the state emergency management services across our network,” said Tom Livingston, CSX’s regional vice president for government affairs in the Midwest.

“Be as well-informed as possible”

The emergency order makes other important recommendations. It says state and local first responders should “be as well-informed as possible as to the presence of trains carrying large quantities of Bakken crude oil” in their area. That way, they have “reasonable expectations” to “prepare accordingly for the possibility of an oil train accident.”

15 Finds Out uncovered that wasn’t the case for some first responders in northeast Indiana.  On October 1, 15 Finds Out spoke with Michael “Mick” Newton, emergency management director for Noble County. At the time, Newton had never heard of the emergency order and didn’t know about the increase in crude-by-rail in his county.

“The first I heard about it was from you,” Newton said.  “I believe if the state was aware of that, I would have that information.”

15 Finds Out obtained proof that the Indiana Department of Homeland Security (IDHS) actually did have that information and delayed passing it along. I-Team 8 at our sister station, WISH-TV in Indianapolis, recently got a copy of an email sent to several emergency management directors across northern Indiana.

The email included Norfolk Southern’s oil train route maps and how many of its oil trains travel through 12 northern Indiana counties with more than 1 million gallons every week.

Norfolk Southern sent IDHS that information in a letter dated June 3, 2014. But IDHS didn’t forward it to EMA directors until October 8, ironically after 15 Finds Out and I-Team 8 began asking questions.

The Federal Railroad Administration has noted those crude-by-rail stats are public.  Still, IDHS denied a request for copies and said that information could hurt public safety by creating a vulnerability to terrorist attacks.

Millions of gallons “through your backyard”

Click image to see full graphic.
Northfolk Southern weekly shipments: Click image to see full-screen graphic.

Because of legal concerns, 15 Finds Out is not releasing Norfolk Southern’s oil train exact routing maps.  Noble and DeKalb Counties have 13 to 24 trains carrying a million gallons or more of crude oil every week. Whitley and Allen Counties have between 0 and 4 trains carrying a million gallons or more every week.

Leaders with CSX were more forthcoming with oil train information. Livingston said 20 to 35 trains carrying a million gallons or more of North Dakota Crude Oil travel on its Garrett line every week.

15 Finds Out shared those stats with Newton on October 1.

“Nobody’s come up with, other than you, of any information like that to me,” he said.

It was a similar story in DeKalb County. EMA Director Roger Powers said he hadn’t received any crude-by-rail notifications from IDHS until, ironically, the day of his interview with 15 Finds Out.

Click image to see full-screen graphic.
CSX weekly shipments: Click image to see full-screen graphic.

“It’s always good for us to know,” Powers said. “When we don’t know, that’s when we get caught sometimes and have to pull back and regroup and think about how we are going to attack this.”

“Internal delay”

When asked why it took IDHS four months to give first responders the oil train notifications, public information officer John Erickson released a statement that said in part:

There was an internal delay at IDHS with respect to the first notification the agency received regarding the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) order. This notification was not evaluated as efficiently as it could have been, and as a result, was not forwarded to the local responders as quickly as IDHS would have liked.

The statement said the agency has since modified its evaluation process of these notifications and will, in the future, get them to local emergency responders as quickly as possible.

There was an apparent confusion at IDHS regarding the oil train notification. The statement said officials weren’t sure if it was the particular notification required under the DOT order. Since IDHS considers the information to be highly sensitive, the agency said the documents had to be “carefully evaluated regarding which agencies had a need to know.”

Read the entire statement from IDHS

In the end, Newton argued that his department’s response would be the same whether they knew how many oil trains pass through or not.  Despite the four month delay, both Newton and Powers are each thankful they now have the proactive information. They are now passing those stats down to first responders, like Auburn Fire Chief Mike VanZile.

“Since you said something to me I’ve done some research, and now I think through your efforts and some other folks’ efforts, now the state has given our EMA director, homeland security office, some vital information that he has passed on to me,” VanZile told 15 Finds Out. “Millions of gallons going across these rails, that’s a huge concern.”

15 Finds Out continues its investigative series “Through Your Backyard” next week. Tune in Thursday, November 6 at 6:00 p.m. to hear what the railroad companies and U.S. Department of Transportation are doing to make crude-by-rail safer.

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