Although it’s been a contentious issue in recent years, East Olympia Fire Chief Warren Peterson said crude oil is far from the most hazardous substance transported by rail through Thurston County.
Chlorine and sulfuric acid — both classified as toxic inhalation hazards — pose a higher danger and are moved through the county relatively frequently, Peterson said. But with proper training of emergency responders, it’s still possible to keep the public safe in the event of a spill.
One of these training events brought area firefighters to rural Thurston County on Friday.
Firefighters from several departments — including East Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater and Olympia — gathered for training sessions with BNSF Railway. About 100 turned out for the four days of training.
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Peterson said he scheduled the session because of growing concerns in the community regarding crude oil shipping — especially in light of recent explosions in Canada and the United States.
“In reality, I think the chances of that happening here are very small,” Peterson said. “But it’s our job to be prepared.”
BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace explained that the company operates most of the Class 1 track in Washington. Other organizations, including Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad, Tacoma Rail and Western Washington Railroad, operate short-line railroads. Friday’s training was conducted on a Western Washington Railroad track running parallel to Offut Lake Road near Tenino.
Between 2004 and 2014, BNSF has conducted training for about 4,000 Washington firefighters, Wallace said.
The Thurston County firefighters got a first-hand look at a tanker car similar to those used to haul hazardous materials. Justin Piper, the regional director of hazardous material training for BNSF, explained that the tanker car was formerly a functioning DOT 111 car, but it was converted into a training car.
Hazardous materials are transported in either DOT 111 cars or newer, more sophisticated CPC 1232 cars, Piper said. On both kinds of cars, the tanks are made from half-inch thick steel, and some cars are “jacketed” in an extra layer of steel.
“They’re made from very strong, ductile steel,” Piper said. “In derailments they tend to hold up pretty well.”
Piper said the heads — or the ends — of the CPC 1232 cars are also fitted with protective shields, and the valves on top of the cars have stronger protective coverings. All of the cars made in 2011 or later were constructed to those standards.
Wallace said BNSF doesn’t own rail cars. They’re simply moved on BNSF lines using BNSF engines. The company also can’t legally prevent customers from shipping certain materials — such as crude oil.
Like a working car, the training tanker is printed with information about the car’s capacity and pressure, and it’s fitted with ladders, steam coils (for heating certain materials) and a GPS tracker. But unlike a functioning car, the training car is fitted with several types of valves and a door to allow access inside.
Piper explained that different rail cars are fitted with different valves depending on their contents. Propane cars, for example, are fitted with different valves than chlorine cars even though both substances are transported under pressure.
The majority of cars transport substances under low pressure, and those cars are fitted with still another type of valve.
And unlike other types of rail cars, tanker cars don’t separate from each other if they derail, Piper said. That way, couplings won’t puncture the cars.
The tanks on the cars also can separate from the heavy wheels, he said.
Piper also demonstrated the car’s emergency brakes, which are controlled by a large wheel and lever at one end of the car. He explained that it’s much easier to get a car rolling than one might expect because most railroad tracks are on a slight grade, even if they look perfectly level. There’s also very little resistance, as the area of contact between the wheels and the rails is only about as wide as a dime.
The wheels themselves are monitored by wayside detectors while the cars are in motion, Piper said. The sensors also keep an eye on a train’s cargo. All problems are reported to BNSF headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, which in turn notifies the people aboard the trains of any issues.
“We want to find the problem before it causes the derailment,” Piper said.
BNSF also sends geometry cars down the rail lines to detect problems with the tracks and the underlying structure. Peterson said a geometry car recently discovered a flaw at a railroad crossing on Rich Road, and the entire track was torn up and rebuilt.
“I think people assumed they were doing it to make the crossing smoother,” Peterson said. “But that was just an added bonus.”
But one of the most important steps firefighters can take to avoid catastrophe is to prevent a collision with an oncoming train, Piper said. He advised them to station flaggers 2 miles on either side of a collision.
“You have to expect something coming at any time on any area of the track,” Piper said.