Exploding rail cars nothing new. But some changes in what and inside what they carry.

Today I thought I would keep the commentary to a minimum. Okay, who is the smart ass out there who is whooping and hollering and clapping hands?

Having spent a pretty fair amount of time in both public safety and journalism has afforded me an opportunity to see kind of an amazing phenomenon. That is, when some kind of manmade disaster occurs it always seems to much of the public — and to many in journalism — that this was the first time such and such happens. Fortunately, both sectors have an equal, if not more, stores of long-reaching memories.

If the media was spending less time on the next to the next terror attacks, or story, or story about a story, du jour  then perhaps we would be hearing more on the West Virginia train derailment. That wreck did make quite a boom, which is always good television. Fortunately, no serious injuries or fatalities have been reported, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. That service has been working to containing pollution in a local river from the CSX freight train from North Dakota to Virginia that was carrying Bakken crude oil. The USCG said the train consisted of two locomotives and 109 rail cars — 107 tank cars and two buffer cars.

The rail cars were reportedly of an improved type for carrying crude oil or ethanol.  The Bakken crude is so named for the geological shale formation producing oil in Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Bakken crude is characterized as a light, sweet crude that is easier to refine than normal crude. But it also has a lower flashpoint so it also is more dangerous than traditional crude.

Oil from the Bakken formation has been present in a number of disasters. Most notable was the 2013 Lac-Mégantic derailment in Quebec. The 72-car North Daktoa to New Brunswick freight train was left unattended and ran away. The train exploded and caught fire resulting in 47 deaths and five missing, presumed dead. Almost half of the downtown area was destroyed.

The Bakken crude is among the oil proposed for shipping to northern portions of the XL Keystone Pipeline, and ultimately to the Gulf Coast.

It has been some 35 years since I was truly involved in planning for dangerous hazardous materials, or HazMat, accidents. I had once seen in the woods a tank car that had been carrying polyvinyl chloride — the substance used in manufacturing PVC pipe –that had experienced what is called a BLEVE, for boiling liquid exploding vapor explosion. To this day I remember the freakish curve one end of the tank car took which basically made the top and bottom of the car into one big piece of metal. This was after flying more than a half-mile from the track and into the woods. I have not since my days in journalism or fire-rescue kept up with tank cars or explosive crude oil. I just knew back in the day as a firefighter we were worried much more about chemical compounds exploding than crude.

So this is the part where I let the readers read all the links I have provided. I just wanted to emphasize, or reemphasize, that rail accidents involving HazMat is nothing new. But the railcars in West Virginia were of the type material that was built to have a high threshold to BLEVE. One wonders about that with the proposed northern part of the Keystone pipeline and the one already built that takes oil from Oklahoma to refineries only 15 or so miles down the highway from where I live.

I just wonder all the while taking what information I have discovered just in the last few hours. I make no conclusions, whether it be about the Bakken Crude flashpoint, the safety of new railcars or the risk of the Keystone pipeline that is already up and running not far at all away from me. So I provide here a few pieces to ponder and let you all draw your own conclusions. Have a nice day.

More reading:

USDOT: http://phmsa.dot.gov/pv_obj_cache/pv_obj_id_8A422ABDC16B72E5F166FE34048CCCBFED3B0500/filename/07_23_14_Operation_Safe_Delivery_Report_final_clean.pdf

Keystone XL Map

BlazeTech: BLEVE