A series of explosive accidents involving train cars hauling crude oil from North Dakota has prompted a national outcry for more information about the amount of oil traveling the country's rail lines. 

But the tone has been noticeably different in Wyoming, where state officials have played a limited role in developing emergency plans aimed at addressing safety concerns raised by the increase in shipments of oil by rail.

That task has largely been left to local emergency response departments.  

The difference in tone here is the result of several factors. For one, Wyoming's two major rail companies say they are not shipping the volatile variety of crude produced in North Dakota's Bakken formation through the Cowboy State.

The lack of concern is also a reflection of the long history of oil and gas production in Wyoming. Emergency officials in the state have considerable experience dealing with shipments of hazardous materials.

Still, questions remain. North Dakota's crude is a lighter variety of oil and has been labeled highly volatile following several explosive train accidents, including one last year in Canada that killed 47 people.

The oil produced in Wyoming covers the whole "spectrum," from heavy to light, said Wyoming Oil and Gas Supervisor Mark Watson

"We have so many formations, something like 20 to 30 formations," Watson said. "(In North Dakota), they have two."

Even oil from the same formation can vary, Watson said, noting that he has seen vastly different densities come out of the Niobrara shale formation. 

Wyoming oil production reached 63 million barrels in 2013, the highest level since 1998.  Oil-by-rail shipments have increased accordingly.

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific railroads saw the number of total oil shipments originating inside the state grow 70 percent between 2012 and 2013. Overall oil shipments were up 61 percent in that time.  

Neither state nor local officials track the quantity or type of oil being shipped inside Wyoming.

A recent order from the U.S. Department of Transportation requires railroads to notify state officials of shipments of more than 1 million gallons coming from North Dakota's Bakken formation. 

Kelly Ruiz, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security, said the agency does not track crude shipments outside of large movements of Bakken oil. The state has yet to receive notification of any of Bakken shipments, she said.  

The state Emergency Response Commission has yet to meet since the order has been issued, said Don Huber, the Campbell County fire chief and the commission's chairman.  

"For us, rail cars, semis full of oil, that has been a part of our life for a long time," Huber said. "I’m not saying we shouldn't, but it doesn't raise questions it might in states without oil."

The Wyoming Department of Transportation's involvement in rail shipments is limited to areas where rail lines cross roads, said WYDOT's Dan Kline.

The department is working on a state rail plan with the Wyoming Business Council to track rail traffic. That report, which is expected to be put out in the next 90 days, will include commodity shipment figures. Otherwise, WYDOT does not track what is being shipped, Kline said.

Wyoming does not have a railroad administration like some states, but Gov. Matt Mead is tracking the rise in shipments of oil by rail, said spokesman Renny MacKay. 

"The federal government has the lead responsibility to regulate interstate railways, including oversight of safety," MacKay said. "The state may seek a role, for example, for state safety or transportation personnel, if railroad safety issues in Wyoming are identified. The Wyoming Office of Homeland Security is working with local emergency planning committees and local emergency responders."

The number of rail accidents in Wyoming was down nearly 48 percent between 2004 and 2013, from 48 accidents a decade ago to 25 last year, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The number of train cars carrying hazardous materials involved in accidents is also down, declining from 73 in 2004 to 40 last year. 

Local responders treat all crude shipments as volatile until proven otherwise, said Natrona County Emergency Management Coordinator Stewart Anderson. At the same time, county officials are planning for the future. 

Emergency personnel have been in contact with the Natrona County Planning Department to gather information and plan for a new oil-to-rail loading facility, which will open later this year outside Casper, Anderson said. That facility will load oil arriving through a pipeline originating in Canada onto trains. Canadian oil tends to be heavier and less volatile.

Communication between counties is excellent, Anderson said, noting that local emergency departments share information on everything from natural disasters to shipments of hazardous materials.

Natrona County has long seen shipments of hazardous materials like chlorine, sulfuric acid and ammonia travel through Casper on BNSF's line. The county has a good sense of what is traveling on local rail lines based on the railroad's response to survey questions, he said.

Still, Anderson added, "we always consider more information better so we can filter what is needed. It's nice to know what is going through town."

Russ Dalgarn, Converse County emergency management coordinator, said he is unsure whether more state coordination is needed in crude shipments. Local emergency personnel will respond with everything they have in an accident and call for outside help if needed, he said. 

"If someone is providing info on how many barrels of oil are coming through town every day, is it going to change what we do on a daily basis? Probably not," Dalgarn said. 

BNSF recently trained local officials to respond to a rail accident involving crude, said Campbell County Emergency Coordinator David King. The railroad also provided the county fire department with a trailer equipped with special foam and a pump, he said.  

"People are talking about it," King said "There have been discussions of safety. If you have a response to a scene, people go prepared."

State officials at the Office of Homeland Security also distribute information on hazardous material shipments throughout Wyoming. Communication across state lines is also up, as South Dakota officials have reached out to emergency personnel in Wyoming in recent months, King said. 

Campbell County has witnessed much of the uptick in oil production. Emergency calls on the roadways around Wright, where new drilling activity has been highest, have increased, King said. 

County officials are also watching oil-by-rail shipments, King said, although he said he was unsure whether a new oil terminal at Arch Coal's Black Thunder mine was operational. The facility started smaller shipments in March and saw its first 100-car unit train leave last month. 

"Until that shipment starts and things happen, it is not as front of mind as it might be," King said.

Reach energy reporter Benjamin Storrow at 307-335-5344 or benjamin.storrow@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @bstorrow

(1) comment

Kool Kat

Attn Benjamin, it is humanly impossible to insure against transport failure, whether natural or man-made disasters. In today's terrorist world where Islamic fundamentalists are literally taking over counties ie... Syria and Iraq.
We see a threat increasing rather than decreasing with an ill advised "planned" shrinking of the US Military. Therefore the foolishness of local, State and Federal Government staking a claim insuring against terror strikes is laughable.
The US needs to secure the southern border and add more in its military [not decrease] at a time like now. The State must get that assurance by verifying the border and military remains strong before making such outlandish promises.
I applaud the State for not making promises the State can not guarantee due to a dysfunctional US Government under this administration.

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