Emergency personnel prepare for potential oil hazards

Emergency personnel prepare for potential oil hazards

Navajo Nation emergency responders climb up on a Burlington Northern Santa Fe tanker car to learn about Bakken oil and the tankers that carry it. (Photo by Aprille Slutsy, DEMA PIO)

Bakken oil is a crude oil mixed with dissolved volatile gases, making it highly flammable. It travels via pipelines, railways and highways around the country. While railcars of Bakken oil have not yet traveled through Arizona, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway does operate a line that runs through the northern Arizona counties of Apache, Coconino, Mojave, Navajo and Yavapai, as well as through the Hopi and Navajo Nations.


BNSF is used by companies that need to move oil and other products across the country. They are the largest transporter of Bakken crude oil in North America, carrying 360,000 tank cars across 32,000 track miles.


No pipelines run to the West Coast, so other transport is necessary to get the oil west. Rail and ground transportation are the best ways to move it. BNSF says transporting Bakken oil via rail is 16 times safer than via road, but it still brings a lot of controversy. 


Bakken crude oil production has increased dramatically in the last four years. In 2010, 340,000 barrels were produced. In 2013, production climbed to 800,000 barrels. As the production of Bakken oil has increased, so has the amount transported across the county. In 2013, 438,000 tank cars were moved by rail, compared to 9,500 in 2008.


The Arizona Emergency Response Commission (AZSERC) is responsible for implementing the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) provisions, as well as reviewing local emergency plans. Companies are required to notify AZSERC when they are transporting Bakken crude oil in excess of 1 million gallons into and through Arizona.


“Currently for standard crude oil, oil companies do not have to report anything to the State,” said Mark Howard, AZSERC’s Director. “Per the Federal Department of Transportation’s Emergency Order, if a rail shipper will be transporting a million or more gallons of Bakken into a state, then they must notify the State SERC, the Local Emergency Planning Committees and the local fire departments of the shipments.”


Whether or not they are notified of hazardous materials coming into the state, agencies want to be prepared to respond to a spill. AZSERC recently hosted BNSF and the Regional Response Team 9’s (RRT9) quarterly meeting at the Department of Emergency and Military Affair’s (DEMA) Camp Navajo in Bellemont, Arizona. The three-day meeting focused on spill response planning and tank car familiarization. The workshop familiarized the attendees with Bakken crude and the threat, and allowed them time to work spill response procedures into their emergency plans.


Representatives of BNSF attended the meeting out of a corporate interest in personnel safety and spill response training. James Farner, BNSF Railway’s Hazardous Materials Field Manager for Operations and Emergency Response, said the railway trained more than 8,600 first responders in 2014.


“Training of first responders is critical to the success of having a safe and efficient response,” Farner said. “Our training focuses on hazard communication, incident management, railroad awareness and the resources that BNSF will deploy.”


More than 150 emergency managers, fire personnel, public health and environmental quality professionals, and members of the U.S .Coast Guard and Arizona National Guard, for example, attended the RRT9 meeting, creating the opportunity for the responders to get to know each other and to discover what their role would be in a response.


Rosalita Whitehair, Navajo Nation Emergency Management Director, brought a large group with her to the Bakken oil response class. “The shale oil can be volatile and acutely toxic at times. Our responders need to be aware of that hazard,” she said. “We need as many people who are willing to help to be knowledgeable of hazards.”


One outcome AZSERC’s Howard was looking for was for the attendees to be able to identify whether their current emergency response plans are sufficient to respond to a major train derailment involving Bakken crude. They spent time reviewing their emergency response plans and amending them to include response to a potential Bakken spill.


“We realized that each of the counties that participated needed to add more depth to their plans in dealing with rail incidents, including how to manage a disaster involving a large shipment of oil like Bakken,” Howard said. “They’ve now taken those necessary steps in being prepared to respond. However, more training like this is needed for other areas of the state regardless of whether Bakken is involved.”


Mariano Gonzalez, DEMA’s State Emergency Response and Recovery Planning Coordinator, spent time with each county to discuss planning for the possible longevity of an oil spill event. “I wanted each group to think of potential ramifications of a long-term response,” he said. “The response would be drastically different if the spill happened in a populated area, so we discussed sustainability, where they could get resources and what the trigger point would be for them to request services from other agencies and the state.”


One of the most important outcomes of the RRT9 meeting was the chance to develop relationships and partnerships with each other.


“Partnerships are important, especially in the Southwest,” Whitehair said. “There are vast distances between communities, where response times are longer. Many communities do not have enough responders (paid or volunteer), and not all responders are trained to the highest capacity and may not have the proper equipment needed.”


Whitehair and her team are in constant contact with their county and state partners, advising them of current Navajo Nation circumstances, including actions taken and needs. “The relationships have been extremely helpful with response efforts within our communities,” she said.


“The most important thing for anyone to take away from our training sessions is that the communities, agencies and first responders are not alone,” said Farner.  “We rely on one another (first responders and BNSF personnel) in an emergency situation.  We all must have a mutual trust and understanding of our capabilities and resources along with our limitations. With established relationships, we are able to uniformly move in a forward direction to mitigate the incident.” 


“The training that the first responders received regarding better awareness of rail cars and the hazards of Bakken oil was great,” Howard said. “People are now more aware of the potential danger and the increased need for better planning."