Missouri’s largest city has become a crossroads for trains carrying a type of crude oil that has ignited in multiple derailments, according to state documents that the railroads carrying the cargo didn’t want made public.
Each week, as many as 10 trains pass through Kansas City, each carrying at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude from North Dakota, reports released this month by the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency show.
The railroads initially required states to sign agreements that they wouldn’t make the information public.
Trains carrying other types of crude oil – from western Canada, Colorado or Wyoming – might also be moving through the area on their way to the nation’s refineries. But documents that McClatchy and other news organizations obtained through open records requests don’t provide information on those shipments.
The railroad industry is paying to train firefighters from across the country to fight crude oil train fires, such as the one that killed 47 people last year following a derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
No fatalities resulted from subsequent derailments and fires in Aliceville, Ala., Casselton, N.D., and Lynchburg, Va. But the incidents have raised fears and heightened awareness in areas where oil trains roll down the tracks.
Railroads only began hauling crude oil in large volumes in the past few years as domestic production surged. Many local firefighters aren’t sure that they’re adequately prepared for a derailment of a train carrying as many as 3 million gallons of crude oil of any type.
Several fire departments in the Kansas City area have either signed up for or received that special training at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colo., according to the railroads.
“Everybody was clamoring to get it,” said Mark Billquist, chief of the Northwest Consolidated Fire District in De Soto, Kan. “One reason was to see how far behind we are on what we need to do.”
Northwest Consolidated is one of at least four fire departments in Johnson County, Kan., in suburban Kansas City that have requested the free training. That includes Overland Park, which is the headquarters for one of the metro area’s eight regional hazardous material teams.
Prior to the Colorado training sessions, fire departments and hazmat teams in the area met last spring to practice their responses to train derailments of all types, including the special hazards posed by Bakken crude, said Erin Lynch, director of emergency services and homeland security at the Mid-America Regional Council, a local planning agency.
“I get the sense that they understand the characteristics of it,” Lynch said. “There’s an awful lot of interest on this particular protocol.”
North Dakota has become the nation’s No. 2 oil producer behind Texas because of Bakken crude, which is extracted through hydraulic fracturing of shale rock formations. The state is producing about 2 million barrels a day, 1.2 million barrels of which move by rail, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.
BNSF Railway, based in Fort Worth, Texas, and owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, is now the continent’s leading hauler of crude oil by train. Last week, BNSF Executive Chairman Matt Rose told Fox Business Network that the company moves 800,000 barrels of oil a day.
Some of those oil trains use tracks parallel to Interstate 35 through Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., as well as the Kansas communities of Merriam, Shawnee, Lenexa and Olathe.
While the trend has boosted the fortunes of refineries on the east and west coasts that had struggled with the high cost of importing foreign oil, it’s also raised concerns about safety and emergency response.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has been pursuing changes in regulations to improve oil train safety, including railroad operating practices and tank car construction. On May 7, the department began requiring railroads to report to state emergency officials any shipment of 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude. State agencies were then supposed to share the reports with local fire departments and hazardous materials teams.
According to Union Pacific, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas agreed to keep the reports confidential. Missouri, however, joined several other states, including Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota, and made the documents available this month under the state’s open records law.
Missouri’s emergency management agency began receiving the notifications in early June.
A 100-car unit train carries about 70,000 barrels, or about 3 million gallons. According to weekly snapshots BNSF provided Missouri, as many as nine such trains were passing through Platte, Clay and Jackson counties.
Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific reported no large shipments of Bakken crude in the Kansas City area, although Union Pacific reported 10 trains a week in three counties in southeast Missouri.
Initially, Kansas City Southern reported no Bakken movements. But last month, the railroad notified Missouri that it would begin transporting as many as five Bakken trains a month from Kansas City to Nederland, Texas.
Missouri and Kansas are behind other states in receiving railroad industry-sponsored training on how to fight fires from oil train derailments.
As of last month, 11 Missouri fire departments and eight from Kansas had participated, according to a list compiled from rail industry news releases. By contrast, between 26 and 29 departments from Minnesota, Illinois, Washington and California sent first responders to Pueblo.
According to Mark Davis, a Union Pacific spokesman, the Kansas City Fire Department participated in a three-day training class last month. BNSF, Union Pacific and other railroads are paying the travel, lodging and training expenses.
The classes began in July and are scheduled through November and December.
Doniele Carlson, a spokeswoman for Kansas City Southern, said the railroad would pay for 10 participants to take the Pueblo class. She said the railroad “continues to work with local authorities to obtain a participant from Kansas City.”
Capt. Marvin Butler and four others from the Olathe Fire Department went to Pueblo on Union Pacific’s dime this summer for training. BNSF will sponsor others from the department to take future classes.
Butler said the training included a simulated 20-car derailment, seven or eight of which were overturned. Propane-fueled fires simulated burning oil.
“It kind of put some things in perspective, “ he said.
Alejandro Fragoso contributed to this story.