WASHINGTON — Emergency response officials told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday that big cities and small towns alike are unprepared for a disaster on the scale of an oil train derailment and fire last year in Quebec that destroyed part of a town and killed 47 people.
The hearing was only the second on Capitol Hill in recent weeks that sought the perspective of local officials. The federal government has regulatory authority over rail shipments, but the burden of emergency response ultimately falls on local agencies.
The specter of a large-scale crude oil fire and spill has hung over communities across the country since July’s crash in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where firefighters were simply outmatched by the scale and ferocity of the blaze.
“We can handle everyday emergencies,” said Timothy Pellerin, the fire chief of Rangeley, Maine, whose department assisted in the Quebec derailment. “We’re not prepared for a major disaster like this.”
Urban fire departments may have more resources and personnel, but the scale of the threat is a challenge for them too.
Barb Graff, director of the Seattle Office of Emergency Management, said three loaded crude oil trains a week pass through the city but that the frequency could increase to three per day when refineries are able to receive them.
“There’s an imbalance when we increase the hazard but we don’t increase the ability of the local community to deal with that hazard,” she testified.
The hearing in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies, was led by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine. Crude oil shipments not only cross both states in trains, but they also cross the border into Canada on North America’s virtually seamless rail network.
Pellerin’s department was one of seven in Maine to assist in Lac-Megantic.
They were confronted by multiple problems on arrival. He testified that his radios were not compatible with Canadian frequencies nor were fire hose couplings in sync. And the Maine firefighters needed an interpreter because their Quebec colleagues only spoke French.
Graff said regional emergency managers met with representatives of BNSF Railway recently to discuss the impact of crude oil shipments in Washington state. BNSF, based in Fort Worth, Texas, is the nation’s largest hauler of crude oil in trains and operates routes through Washington state’s major population centers.
According to a map of BNSF crude oil terminals, the railroad serves four in Washington, with two more in development. Murray said the shipments are expected to triple to 55 million barrels this year, and that’s “only the tip of the iceberg.”
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signed a resolution last month that presses railroads to disclose the volume, frequency and contents of shipments. They currently are not required to do so.