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Legislature Leaving Emergency Responders Hanging in Face of Oil Train Risks

Small sacrifice to fight Putin and jihadis?

Bob Mercer notes that county emergency responders lack the training and resources to deal with oil train accidents. County emergency management officials don't even get updates on what sort of toxic train materials are moving through or parking in their counties. State Emergency Response Commission chairman Bob McGrath says that in response to this increased risk to emergency responders and the public at large, the Legislature is likely to do nothing:

The commission’s chairman, Bob McGrath of White, said training money is available, but he doesn’t know where equipment money would be found.

McGrath said he doesn’t foresee the Legislature imposing fees and won’t allow special tax assessments. “I think the legislation approach probably is not going to work,” he said [Bob Mercer, "Oil Trains Present Unmet Challenges for South Dakota," Aberdeen American News, 2014.12.16].

The Emergency Response Commission called for no action.

As we wait unprepared for the next messy derailment, let us take comfort in the fact that we are sacrificing our local safety to support the global war on bad guys. Our oil production is putting a serious crimp in Vladimir Putin's style:

Putin's Russia, like the USSR before it, is only as strong as the price of oil. In the 1970s, we made the mistake of thinking that the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan meant that we were losing the Cold War, when the reality was that they had stumbled into their own Vietnam and could only afford to feed their people as long as oil stayed sky-high. The USSR's economic mirage, though, became apparent to everybody—none less than their own people, who had to scrounge in empty supermarkets—after oil prices bottomed out in the 1980s. That history is repeating itself now, just without the Marxist-Leninism. Putin could afford to invade Georgia and Ukraine when oil prices were comfortably in the triple digits, but not when they're half that. Russia can't afford anything then [Matt O'Brien, "Sorry, Putin. Russia's Economy Is Doomed," Washington Post: Wonkblog, 2014.12.15].

We and the Saudis are also helping beat the Islamic State thugs, who can't command as high a price for the product of their commandeered oil fields. Well, that, and we're blowing up the oil infrastructure they control.

So anyone willing to trade local emergency responder safety and environmental integrity for geopolitical wins against Russia and the caliphate?


  1. mike from iowa 2014.12.16

    McGrath should lobby Dept of Homeland Security for equipment to train first responders. Heck,they send every jackwagon police force armored combat vehicles. DHS has an obligation to equip and train ;murricans for potential terrorist threats.

  2. CLCJM 2014.12.16

    Well, you know it's a small sacrificee, you know. There won't be any derailmen's or leaks and if there is, they'll be miniscule and the oil/rail companies will be right there with all the equipment and money to fix it right up, right? NOT!!!

  3. Roger Elgersma 2014.12.16

    There is probably radiation in those oil train fires. Might also be why there are so many more fires than before. So Mike was right, FEMA should get involved but only with matching funds from the oil companies and train companies. If their problems cost them and not all cost on taxpayer, they might see how much safer and therefore profitable it is to haul grain. Locals do not understand radiation fires but would be needed to contain the area both because it would take a few hours to fly in some personel and equipment from FEMA. Whoever fights forest fires could also be trained on this and be part of the solution. the rail and oil companies could also be charged a fee for help with their fire.

  4. W R Old Guy 2014.12.16

    The oil train problem is a manufactured problem that has the media's attention. There are millions of hazardous shipments by rail every year and a fair amount present the potential to do a lot more damage than the Bakken oil.

    I spent over 40 years in the emergency services working in fire, emergency medical, and first responder hazmat. I have never heard of radiation being a problem with crude oil. Refineries would have to have a lot of shielding and a disposal process for radioactive waste if there was radioactive material involved.

    The railroads have training available to first responders and have their own hazmat cleanup teams. Classes are normally done at regional or state fire school.

    The small VFD is not going to be equipped to handle any train derailment as well as Sioux Falls or Rapid City ( or other larger communities). Derailments involving fire are often allowed to burn out as extinguishment is either too dangerous or impossible.

    Anhydrous Ammonia is shipped to farm communities in pressurized tank cars that can explode in a fire situation. Roughly 75% of all ethanol is shipped by rail tank car because it is easily contaminated by moisture and other impurities. Ethanol is just as flammable as crude oil or gasoline and burns with a clear flame with little smoke making it almost impossible to see the flames. It also requires a specialized foam to extinguish the fire.

    We also have other chemicals such as propane and chlorine shipped through the state that are flammable, poisonous, or can explode in a derailment.

    The Emergency Responders in South Dakota have resources available through training, regional hazmat teams, mutual aid, and CHEMTREC (24/7 chemical hotline) just to name a few. The safe thing to do at an incident might be to evacuate the area and wait for a professional hazmat team to handle the incident.

    We have had the same concerns over propane, chlorine, ammonia and other chemicals over the years. Training and equipment has vastly improved. Could the first responders use more of both? Yes in most cases but within the capability of the responders.

  5. Paul Seamans 2014.12.16

    W R Old Guy; from your comment I gather that if there is to be a spill, from rail or pipeline, that it had better happen close to a big city where there are trained first responders available. The small town volunteers have neither the time nor inclination to receive the training to properly respond to such spills. In addition shippers claim that the makeup of their product is proprietary information and responders don't know what chemicals that they are dealing. First responders to the tarsands pipeline spill in Kalamazoo four years ago were sickened because of the benzene in the crude oil of which they were unaware. TransCanada has not supplied first responders along Keystone 1 with any proper training, TC's solution is to hand out a folder that gives a number to call in case of emergency, nothing more.

  6. Lynn DeYoung 2014.12.16

    Bob Mercer did a good job of reporting some of the highlights of the discussion. Other items not reported include:

    We know that Minnesota does not produce Bakken oil; however they have looked at the potential problems with transportation of that oil through the State. They then wrote and pass a series of legislative efforts to mitigate the potential problem that has developed. They will focus on planning, training and equipping first responders to prepare for this type of incident.

    North Dakota recently chose to regulate the train cars that Bakken oil is transported in within the state.

    We have many trains each week traveling through South Dakota with over 100 cars each. Local communities are not given information on that time that trains run through their communities.

    We also know that South Dakota has the Bakken formation within western South Dakota. Due to technology North Dakota and the oil companies have been able to extract this oil at a price that puts it into the open market. To get to the open market they must be place in unit trains and sent to refineries. This leads them through South Dakota and other states

    When the technology increases oil companies will extract oil in Western South Dakota if the price is right. This will increase the amount of Bakken oil transported on trains in all parts of the state due to the lack of pipelines. We also know that the state of South Dakota and the rail road companies are investing large sums of money into existing rail road’s to handle more traffic from the agricultural industry. It’s only reasonable to think that oil trains will also occupy the tracks as well.

    Most rural fire departments don’t have the necessary equipment to deal with a small or large spill and almost none have the ability to deal with a fire. We must also realize that these trains will go through communities large and small getting to the refineries in other states.

    During the discussion the Haz Mat representative from the Watertown fire department regional response team commented on the continued need for addition funding for response equipment required a Bakken oil incident.

    We only have to look at the accident in Canada where 40+ people died from a Bakken Train Explosion and the incident in North Dakota to know that this is a potential disaster waiting to happen if not properly planned for.

    W R Old Guy is correct in many points about training and the other chemicals that can present problems to first responders. However he fails to look forward to the future and is stuck in a response mode.
    I’d bet that 10 years ago North Dakota had no idea of the potential energy boom that was soon to hit that state. We should learn from that and plan for our own future.

    As an Emergency Management professional it is my job to conduct a threat assessment and then use mitigation strategies to prevent future emergency and disaster situations within my jurisdiction. We also look at lessons learned from other states and incidents. We don’t just respond to incidents after they happen.

    We have the time South Dakota to develop response plans, purchase equipment, conduct response exercises and pass meaningful legislation. The question is if we do it before or after the accident happens.

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