Crude oil is a natural material that is refined into gasoline, diesel fuel and other petrochemicals, and transported in all forms across North America. Pipelines are a common means of getting crude oil from one place to another, but rail is increasingly becoming the go-to transportation method for energy companies. This may be efficient for businesses, but it poses additional safety problems that affect civilians and first responders.

Crude oil transportation changes safety risks 
Companies gravitate toward rail because it leverages existing infrastructure, reaches locations pipelines do not and maximizes the efficiency of the entire transportation process. New rail facilities can be designed to promote ease of loading and unloading, which in turn can reduce labor and lower the cost per unit of the shipment. Since 2008, the use of train tanker cars to transport crude oil has increased to more than 40 times what it once was. Railroads now transport approximately one-tenth of U.S. crude oil output, or about 800,000 barrels per day. Those numbers are expected to continue growing.

As more crude oil is transported by rail, the risk of mishaps increases. Accidents involving trains spilled 1.15 million gallons of crude oil in 2013 alone, according to the Forum News Service. That is more than the past four decades combined. The Global News also noted that train spills are more likely to be larger than those from pipelines. Rail transportation can be affected by outside factors such as weather, traffic or human error, whereas pipelines are mostly situated underground and free from these concerns.

Train routes frequently run through heavily populated areas, and crude oil may be transported with other passengers on board. This proximity could prove to be deadly should a spill and subsequent explosion occur, which was precisely the case at Canada’s Lac-Mégantic. There, a train carrying crude oil derailed, resulting in an explosion that killed 47 people and destroyed more than 30 buildings in the downtown area.

Few changes to safety regulations accompanied the increase in rail transportation, despite greater opportunity for accidents. According to The Associated Press, crude oil contains a high amount of natural gas, which lowers its ignition point. This is particularly true of oil drawn from the Bakken fields in North Dakota. Since train machinery may interact with this crude oil and spark fires or explosions, any spills in transport expose first responders to a wider range of dangers.


“The resurgence of American oil and natural gas production has created new opportunities, but also new challenges,” Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., wrote in a letter to Senate. “Americans need to have confidence that transport safety issues are being addressed comprehensively.”

First responders must know how to handle crude oil
In the event of a crude oil accident, first responders secure the scene, provide medical care to victims and potentially put out fires that occur as a result. Dealing with these incidents can be tricky, however, as the low ignition point of crude oil makes it susceptible to additional explosions involving the train or other equipment on the scene.

A 2011 National Fire Protection Association survey found that 77 percent of fire departments have at least some capabilities for hazmat emergency response. Those that do not are likely situated in rural areas. Many fire departments around the U.S. lack the specific training needed to respond to these hazardous material incidents.

“There are significant portions of the country where first responders are not prepared for an incident involving hazardous materials,” Elizabeth Harman of the International Association of Fire Fighters, told the McClatchy Washington Bureau. “This is an untenable situation that must be rectified.”

Harman stated that many firefighters who may be called to a scene, such as those from volunteer departments, receive only the most basic training. While typically an affordable option that does not take much time, these courses fail to touch on the best practices for dealing with new methods of crude oil delivery. The training funded through the Department of Transportation’s Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness program represents a small fraction of what Harman believes is necessary.

Other organizations are also joining the fray. A Florida-based railroad company called CSX recently launched “Safety Train: Emergency Preparedness Program,” which will travel across the country and educate personnel in how to manage crude oil crisis response.

Because crude oil transport continues to evolve, course material must periodically update to provide responders with the most current, effective information possible. This will likely require cohesive efforts on the part of local departments, federal agencies and oil companies, as public safety officials need to be kept abreast of transportation.

Open communication can allow agencies to set up programs that properly train firefighters, especially in key areas around train routes used by crude oil companies. By focusing on this cooperative action, first responders can ensure they have the information and resources needed to handle crude oil accidents.

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