The Bakken Boom

If you live near Indianapolis or New Albany, you’re not likely to wake up some morning to a fiery scene out of Dante’s Inferno, a fireball and environmental devastation caused by the explosion of rail cars carrying crude oil to East Coast refineries. But your family and friends in upper Indiana could.

On February 16, we saw news reports of the latest explosion of a derailed train carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale deposits in North Dakota. Near Mount Carbon, West Virginia, one derailed tank car went up in flames as it hit and destroyed a house.

A witness to the blast described it as being “like an atomic bomb went off.”

A tanker also went into the Kanawha River, where it threatened to contaminate the community’s drinking water.

In a little more than one year, we have heard of many dangerous crude oil tanker derailments in North America:

  • In December 2013, two trains collided near Casselton, North Dakota — one a 106-car train hauling Bakken shale crude oil and the other a 112-car train carrying grain, which had derailed. The resulting explosions, fire and toxic smoke caused an evacuation of everyone within five miles of the catastrophe; 400,000 gallons of crude oil spilled.
  • In January of 2014, 45 homes were evacuated in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, near the U.S. border, after a train carrying oil from the Bakken shale play derailed and caught fire.
  • That same month, a 101-car crude oil train derailed on a bridge in Philadelphia. A severe snow storm hampered recovery efforts, leaving 80,000 gallons of oil dangling over I-76 and the Schuylkill River for several days.
  • The James River in Lynchburg, Virginia, became a river of fire in April 2014 after several train cars jumped the track and hit the water, spilling 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the river. Part of downtown Lynchburg had to be evacuated because of the fire hazard.

Until fairly recently, rail companies were tight-lipped about their routes, claiming terrorism and security concerns. However, in the wake of increasing tanker derailments, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx signed an emergency order requiring rail freight carriers to identify the routes being used to transport crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana and to notify the first responders along these routes so they could prepare for disasters.

We Now Know…

Now we know that certain counties in northern Indiana are at risk for derailment catastrophes:

Norfolk Southern trains which carry at least 1 million gallons each are running 4 to 39 weekly shipments through these Indiana counties: Lake, Porter, LaPorte, Starke, St. Joseph, Marshall, Elkhart, Kosciusko, Noble, Whitley, DeKalb, and Allen.
CSX trains carrying 1 million gallons or more are traveling 20 to 35 times each week through Lake, Porter, LaPorte, St. Joseph, Marshall, Kosciusko, Noble, and DeKalb counties.

Safety v Profit

The safest way to move crude oil is through pipelines, but pipelines take time and money to build, and many communities loudly object to running underground lines through their area. Consequently, rail transportation is likely to remain a common method of moving the vast Bakken reserves across the country.

It’s worth noting that the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research found that trains are three and a half times as likely as pipelines to suffer safety lapses.

The Bakken shale formation is now producing more than one million barrels of crude oil a day, more than 60 percent of it being transported to eastern ports by rail. In 2008 there were 9,500 rail cars carrying crude oil; by 2013 that number had increased to more than 400,000.

Reasons for Hoosiers to be Concerned

Communities near crude oil routes have three reasons to be concerned:

(1) Bakken crude oil is more hazardous than conventional crude. It contains high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and explosive gases, including propane and butane. California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response described Bakken crude as “resembl[ing] a typical crude oil that has been mixed with diesel or a diesel/gasoline mix.” Bakken has a very low flashpoint –it ignites easily or at a relatively low temperature, and a small puncture, leak, or derailment accompanied by a static charge can set off an explosion not typical of regular crude.
(2) Railroads and rail carriers in the United States are privately owned, and the companies that operate them are responsible for their maintenance and upkeep. They are subject to inspections by the Federal Railroad Administration, but only about two-tenths of one percent get inspected each year, according to the GAO.
(3) In addition, most of the oil being transported from the Bakken formation is being shipped in DOT-111 tanker cars. Safety flaws in the design of DOT-111s have inspired their description as “Pepsi cans on wheels,” “the Ford Pinto of rail cars,” and “ticking time bombs.” These cars are prone to punctures and lack the safety features which are required for shipping other types of hazardous materials.

Making History, and Not in a Good Way

In the worst rail disaster in North America since 1989, a 73-car train carrying Bakken crude derailed in July 2013 as it traveled through a small town in Quebec, killing 47 people and incinerating much of the downtown area. Afterwards, the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway and three of its employees were charged with criminal negligence; the railroad declared bankruptcy; and the bankruptcy trustee has filed suit against the owner of the crude oil for not disclosing the extreme danger of the product. Personal injury lawsuits from residents are predicted to run up to $1 billion.

McNeely Stephenson has been successfully litigating catastrophic injury claims since 1981. Whether you live in metropolitan Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, or Evansville or one of the smaller towns in the Michiana region, we can help you obtain compensation when the negligence of another person or company has caused you to suffer the loss of health or property. Contact us at 1-317-825-5200.