Oil Trains

A tank car carrying crude oil is shown in Trenton, N.D., on Nov. 6. Trains carrying North Dakota crude oil regularly pass through Dakota County, officials revealed this week. 

 

Matthew Brown, Associated Press file

SIOUX CITY | Siouxland emergency response officials are reviewing state documents that show millions of gallons of crude oil are being regularly transported through the region. Officials say the threat is minimal and they have plans in place if something goes wrong.

Iowa state records obtained by the Journal show BNSF Railway Co. sends three trains a week through Lyon, Plymouth, Sioux and Woodbury counties.

The records are from the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department. The U.S. Department of Transportation since May has required railroads to tell state officials about trains carrying at least 1 million gallons of oil.

The four Northwest Iowa counties are the only ones in the state with that kind of shipment, according to the documents. The BNSF route in South Dakota includes parts of Minnehaha County, according to records from that state.

The Nebraska State Emergency Response Commission has denied requests to release the information about shipments.

The BNSF trains are shipping crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota. The practice of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has created a major crude oil boom in North Dakota.

Last week, a Texas company announced plans to construct a 1,100-mile pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois to carry the product. That project also would cut through Siouxland counties. 

The train notification requirement came after an oil train derailment last July in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47. Federal officials at the time said the change was needed so local communities could have emergency plans in place in case a similar derailment happens.

Railroads previously resisted disclosing how many trains were ferrying oil because of security concerns.

In Iowa, Woodbury County Disaster and Emergency Services Director Gary Brown said the train oil shipments are moving through the highest population area of the county, coming into Sioux City's northside, then going through mid-city railyards before crossing into Nebraska at South Sioux City.

Brown said the oil shipments are a fraction of hazardous materials that come through Sioux City on other train cars or trucks along Interstate 29. Those include anhydrous ammonia, chlorine and other flammable compounds.

Brown said the trains travel more slowly than trucks, and railway and Iowa Department of Transportation officials inspect lines.

"What can be done is being done to reduce the hazards," he said.

An incident could range from a low-level event to a massive fire requiring evacuation. Brown said emergency responders are well-versed for a variety of incidents.

"We have the resources to respond," he said.

Before coming south into Woodbury County, the trains travel mostly along U.S. Highway 75 in Plymouth County, though Hinton, Merrill and Le Mars.

Plymouth County Emergency Management Director Gary Junge said a derailment in high-population Le Mars would be a worst-case scenario for residents.

"There is always concerns on hazardous materials," Junge said.

He said the county's emergency responders get continuing training. If the scenario was significantly large, mutual aid from Sioux City's regional hazardous materials unit could be called in.

BNSF Railway spokesman Steve Forsberg said derailments are at record lows.

Federal Railroad Administration statistics show 1,251 train derailments in 2013, down 48.6 percent from 2004. Those numbers include all trains -- freight and passenger -- and all locations, including derailments that occur when cars are being hooked and unhooked in rail yards.

Additionally, Union Pacific Railroad, which also has Sioux City lines, shipped approximately 163,000 carloads of crude oil on its 23-state network through the fourth quarter of 2013, the most recent period available, and only a small portion of that traffic went through Iowa and Sioux City.

Spokesman Mark Davis said he didn't have oil shipments broken down by city. The shipments make up less than 1 percent of UP's business in Iowa.

He said crude oil production is strengthening the economy.

"We are helping to facilitate this production increase by transporting crude from oil fields to refineries as safely, quickly and efficiently as possible," Davis said.

U.S. crude oil shipments topped 110,000 carloads in the first quarter of 2014, an estimated 3.2 billion gallons of crude and the highest volume ever moved by rail, the Association of American Railroads said.

Nebraska emergency officials have said they are sharing the railroad data with communities but are honoring the request from the train company that the data is proprietary. 

The Sierra Club has spoken out against the confidentiality agreements elsewhere and in Nebraska.

Ken Winston, lobbyist for the Nebraska chapter, said safety should be a priority. 

"The rule of thumb should be, let's err on the side of protecting people's health, rather than protecting a confidentiality agreement," he said. 

The Associated Press and Lincoln Journal Star contributed to this report.

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