The trains roll throughout the day, running east and west along the snow-blanketed tracks of northwestern Montana, dipping low along the southern edge of Glacier National Park. Boxcars, intermodal freight containers, and bulk cargo clamber up and then down the Continental Divide. Night falls, and yet another train emerges from the east, accompanied by a thin metal-on-metal shriek. First to appear are two locomotives, their headlights tunneling through the darkness, then 103 tanker cars, dull black with hymenopteran stripes. Inside the tankers are two and a half million gallons of light, sweet crude, freshly pumped from North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation.
The vast majority of America’s oil is still transported via pipeline, which is a significantly cheaper means of conveyance than rail. But building new pipelines to handle the glut of Bakken crude is expensive, time-consuming, and increasingly stymied by political opposition; by landowners unwilling to grant easements; and, if the pipeline crosses federal land, by heightened environmental review. Train tracks, on the other hand, already crisscross the nation, and freight railroads are now investing tens of billions of dollars on new locomotives, on the upgrading of track, and on so-called transloading facilities, where oil is either funneled into unit trains (which consist of 100 or more oil tankers) or pumped out of them and transferred to refineries, river barges, or ships. In 2013, 69 percent of Bakken oil traveled by rail; that percentage is expected to reach 90 percent this year.
But with that increase comes another—an increase in the risk of environmental catastrophe. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, at least one train, on average, slips off the tracks in this country every single day. Multiply the number of train cars carrying crude oil by 50, as we did between 2009 and 2013, and you multiply the odds of a leak, a major spill, or—worse—a massive explosion commensurately. And depending on where, when, and under what circumstances such an accident were to take place, the impact could range from manageable to utterly, epically devastating.
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On a snowy day in January, I follow via automobile as the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway climbs west out of the plains near the small town of East Glacier, in a part of Montana known for its wicked winds. Gusts of over 100 miles an hour aren’t uncommon here. Driving with a local resident, I note the remains of a porch that has blown off a house and into a tree, several steel posts bent 90 degrees by westerly gales, and a railroad-erected windscreen covering the train bridge over Midvale Creek. No trains have fallen off the bridge, but high winds have been known to blow boxcars off their tracks in other exposed stretches.
Pushed and pulled by two locomotives at either end, the oil tankers depart East Glacier, attain an elevation of 5,272 feet at Marias Pass, then begin their long descent, contouring along steep mountainsides, snaking through a series of wooden avalanche sheds, and curving around wetlands until they emerge, 60 miles west, in the equally tiny town of West Glacier. It’s all incredibly scenic—snow-brindled conifers, distant peaks, granite outcrops—and Amtrak tries as hard as it can to take advantage of the scenery by routing its Empire Builder passenger train through this corridor during daylight hours. Alas, there’s so much competition for rail space from oil trains these days (and, increasingly, coal trains) that the Empire Builder now has an on-time rate of less than 50 percent. Oil trains have similarly stalled the transport of North Dakota grain, causing its price to spike 20 percent. But when there’s enough light, those eastward-bound Amtrak passengers get to see, on their left, the peaks of Glacier National Park; on their right are the splendors of the Flathead National Forest, a 2-million-acre tract, half of which has been officially designated as wilderness.
“This is a particularly sensitive part of the world,” Mark Jameson, of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), tells me, before ticking off its various designations: United Nations Biosphere Reserve; UNESCO World Heritage Site; hydrological apex of the North American continent; ancestral hunting grounds of the Kootenai, Salish, and Blackfeet tribes. “The park and the forest are major engines of the rural economy”—nonresidents spend more than $714 million in the region—“and these streams contain numerous species of concern, including the bull trout and the westslope cutthroat trout.”
As 2013 drew to a close, Jameson’s group began to ponder, for the first time, the repercussions of a nightmare scenario: What if a unit train were to derail here, spilling millions of gallons of oil into this unspoiled environment before bursting into flames and triggering a catastrophic explosion? Unfortunately, such a scenario isn’t so farfetched. Last July, 63 tankers filled with Bakken crude derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and incinerating the center of the small town. Then, in November, 25 cars of Bakken oil derailed in an Alabama swamp: the ensuing explosion sent 300-foot flames into the sky and continued to burn for three days. In December a Bakken oil train collided with a derailed grain train in Casselton, North Dakota, spilling 400,000 gallons and burning for close to 24 hours while more than a thousand residents evacuated their homes in sub-zero temperatures. Since March of 2013, in fact, there have been 10 large rail-related spills of crude in the U.S. and Canada. Just two weeks ago, a southbound Canadian Pacific train leaked a trail of about 12,000 gallons of crude oil through nearly 70 miles of southeastern Minnesota.
Historically, crude oil has been placarded as a product with “low volatility,” the kind of oil that couldn’t be lit with a blowtorch. But in the wake of the Lac Megantic disaster, investigators determined that the crude coming out of North Dakota had a much lower flash point than other forms of crude, and posed a much more significant fire risk if released. (Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources is concerned enough about this risk, apparently, that the agency now requires the flaring of Bakken crude’s volatile compounds before it will allow barges to carry the stuff down the Mississippi River in that state.) The DOT-111 tankers that hold the oil are another problem entirely. Today, 85 percent of the 92,000 tank cars that haul flammable liquids around the nation are standard issue DOT-111s. For decades the National Transportation and Safety Board has been warning that this type of tanker car, in particular, punctures easily. Last fall, the Federal Railroad Administration told the Petroleum Manufacturers Institute that it had found “increasing cases of damage to tanker cars’ interior surfaces,” possibly caused by “contamination of crude by materials used in fracking.”
Earlier this year the American Association of Railroads petitioned the DOT to impose new standards on tanker cars, including thicker head shields and improved valve coverings. But retrofitting or redesigning tankers to resist corrosion and puncture would cost the industry around $3 billion, remove cars from service in an already tight market, and take several years. Lobbyists for Canadian and U.S. oil producers have asked regulators not to rush into rules that could hurt their profits, preferring that they focus instead on addressing “track defects and other root causes of train accidents.”
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The derailment of a unit train along Glacier National Park’s U-shaped southern boundary is what one might deem a low-risk proposition that nevertheless carries a high-hazard potential. The cold, clear waters of this corridor—where Bear Creek, key trout-spawning territory, joins the wild and scenic Middle Fork of the Flathead River—are pristine, and they support a lucrative rafting, kayaking, and fishing industry. “Once oil gets into moving water, there’s no cleaning it up,” says Scott Bosse, the Northern Rockies director of the conservation group American Rivers. “We saw this with the Yellowstone River [pipeline] spill of July 2011, where less than 1 percent of the 63,000 gallons of crude was recovered.”
Residents of the canyon that runs between the park and the forest note that BNSF employees are a constant presence along the tracks, tweaking, upgrading, replacing, and surfacing the company’s investment. Despite their attentions, derailments along this stretch aren’t unknown: there have been 37 between 2000 and 2012—on the high end, compared with other Continental Divide railroad crossings. Some have involved strong winds; some are attributed to human error or equipment failure. According to one oil-train conductor based in North Dakota who asked to remain anonymous, BNSF pushes its employees hard. With so much traffic on the rails, he told me, “we’re working longer than the legal limit, and we’re sleep-deprived. Older and more experienced conductors and engineers are retiring, leaving us with young and inexperienced workers.” Another BNSF mechanic whom I met as he was ordering lunch at a roadhouse near Essex, Montana, told me that wet rails were a perennial problem. “Trains spin their wheels and dig holes in the track.” The grade, too, worried him. “It takes a lot to stop a train coming down from the Pass.”
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So how would a worst-case scenario play out? Picture this: a unit train jumps the track just west of the Continental Divide. Cars tumble off the rail bed, bouncing and ricocheting off each other. Tankers puncture, oil spills and flows, and a spark detonates a massive explosion.
Then the phone rings in the Flathead County Office of Emergency Response, an hour and a half away in the town of Kalispell.
Cindy Mullaney, deputy director of that office, explains what would happen next. “What we’d do is send the jurisdictional fire chief out to size up the situation: what have we got, where’s it going, which way is the wind blowing, and do we have ways to mitigate it,” she says. “If the spill is in the river, we have boom, absorbent pads, and sea curtains cached here in Kalispell. The road department has more of that stuff.”
When I ask her whether the geography of the corridor presents any specific challenges to emergency response, Mullaney replies matter-of-factly. “The biggest problem is that you’re on uneven ground,” she says. “A lot of it’s very steep and rocky. There’s a huge amount of snow in the winter. You throw a river in there, the avalanche danger, the limited communication capabilities, limited evacuation sites with a helicopter, the long distance from any type of resources, … it’s gonna be challenging, no doubt about it.”
Montana has six highly trained and well-supplied hazmat teams spread out around the state. The nearest to the Continental Divide, however, is 90 minutes away. Closer to the corridor are a handful of local fire departments that can respond more quickly but that must nevertheless rely on volunteers—most of whom lack up-to-date (or in some cases, any) turn-out gear, advanced training, and the right tools for containing spills or combating fires borne of hazardous materials.
Depending on where it happened and how high the winds were blowing, Charles Farmer, director of emergency services for Glacier County (just east of the Continental Divide), says that an accident in his area could be “devastating, catastrophic. We’d have no capabilities to handle it. We would organize an evacuation.” Ben Steele, East Glacier’s fire chief, answers in much the same way. “We’re not even close to having enough people to respond if there’s a spill,” he tells me. “We typically get only six or seven volunteers to respond. We haven’t had any training on hazardous materials.”
We talk about the Casselton and Lac Megantic unit train fires, which burned so intensely that responders couldn’t even count the number of cars that were going up in flames, right before their eyes, for more than a day. I ask Steele how he and his volunteers would manage such a situation. “We’d use the rule of thumb,” he tells me. “You hold up your thumb in front of your eye and you back away until the fire is completely hidden.” Meanwhile, a conflagration in the steep, windy canyon could rapidly spread over hundreds of acres. And a spill in the river, especially during the spring runoff season, “could pollute 1,000 miles of shoreline.”
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Jeffery Mow has been the supervisor of Glacier National Park for fewer than six months, but he has special reason to worry about oil-related accidents. A lean man with a cheery, eager manner, he began his Parks Department career more than two decades ago in Alaska as a ranger, and then later a supervisor, in Kenai Fjords National Park. After the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, Mow investigated the 11-million-gallon oil spill for the Park Service and the Department of Justice. (Oil washed onto the shores of both Kenai and Katmai National Parks.) Then, when the Deepwater Horizon gushed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2011, the U.S. Department of the Interior sent Mow to Louisiana to act as its incident commander. Despite massive billion-dollar cleanup operations in both locations, he says from behind his desk in the park’s West Glacier headquarters, “the legacy continues. The oil is still out there.”
Shortly after arriving at Glacier, Mow recalls, “several people brought it to my attention that, gosh, these are really long trains coming through here. That piqued my interest.” Soon afterward, he sat down with officials from BNSF, from whom he learned that he’d be seeing a minimum of one unit train a day—containing 3 million gallons of oil—and up to 10 unit trains a week. Mow also learned, to his dismay, that BNSF’s contingency plan for that oil was “their contingency plan for any other hazardous material they transport, which usually comes along in mixed loads.”
But as Mow well understands, Bakken crude is no ordinary hazmat. BNSF recently hired a consultant to forge a detailed response plan specific to hauling crude through this region. Matt Jones, a railroad spokesperson, said it would include highly detailed maps of the entire route and strategies on how to deploy containment booms in the Middle Fork of the Flathead River or any other nearby body of water. For his part, Mow says he hopes that whatever form the new approach takes, it will entail simulations such as field and tabletop exercises that will allow local officials to rehearse their responses. “We want to have a robust ability to respond, and not try to figure out what we’re doing when we’re in the middle of it,” he says.
Park officials are also eager to learn if the railroad—which is already planning to spend $5 billion to expand capacity, maintain track, and buy locomotives and equipment in 2014—will be building any more avalanche sheds. Currently, eight of these structures have been erected to protect trains from the snow that regularly plummets down 40 separate avalanche paths within a 9-mile stretch. In 2004, three avalanches derailed 119 empty rail cars and struck a commercial truck on the highway; a fourth narrowly missed cleanup crews. Between them, these avalanches shut down the tracks for 29 hours, creating a 70-mile backup of freight traffic.
Concerned with the ongoing potential for financial and human carnage, in 2005 BNSF requested permission from Glacier National Park to control avalanches using explosive charges and military artillery. But before the park could complete its own environmental impact study, the railroad withdrew its request. The environmental impact study went forward, however, and in the end rejected the use of explosives in favor of building new snow sheds. The cost: $5.4 million, amortized over a 50-year period. The railroad, “which had been concerned enough about train safety to propose bombing the national park,” according to the NPCA’s Michael Jameson, declined to build.
Regarding their decision, Mow simply sighs. “It’s not something we can force them to do,” he tells me.
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I glance out the window of Mow’s office and take in the primeval forest of Douglas fir, aspen, birch, and lodgepole pine. A pair of bald eagles spirals over the southern end of Lake McDonald. Perhaps moved by the elemental beauty of the scene, Denise Germann, the park’s management assistant, jumps into the conversation. “This isn’t just a track moving to a destination,” she says, with some passion. “It’s a track moving through public land, going through pristine country. It’s going through land that has many different [values]—whether it’s recreation or economic or scenery or wilderness.”
She’s recapping, essentially, all that we’ve been discussing so far. And yet it bears repeating, since no plan of anyone’s devising can possibly guarantee safe passage through a high-risk corridor of a hundred or more oil-filled tanker cars a day.
Mow acknowledges her statement with a somber nod. And as he does, I can’t help but recall what Larry Timchak, the president of the Flathead Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited, told me at an earlier point during my trip to Montana.
“The probability of an accident over time,” he said, “ is 1.”
OnEarth contributing editor Elizabeth Royte also writes for the New York Times Book Review, which called her “no stranger to the pleasures and perils of chasing errant pieces of plastic and other castoffs to surprising (and often disgusting) places.” She’s the author of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It and Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash
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