The amount of crude oil being hauled on the nation's freight rail lines is on the upswing. The oil and rail industries say that's because of surging oil output from North Dakota's Bakken Shale formation as well as a lack of pipeline capacity.
A December article from the American Association of Railroads says crude oil carloads increased from 9,500 in 2008 to an estimated 400,000 in 2013. And some of those carloads pass through the Rochester area on a CSX freight line.
The line bisects Monroe County and the City of Rochester, and it's part of a rail corridor that CSX bills as the premier route for hauling crude from Chicago to Albany or Philadelphia. Both Albany and Philadelphia are emerging as key crude-oil transport hubs.
Andrew Lonthair, a lieutenant with the Rochester Fire Department, says that CSX tells the city what hazardous materials are passing through on its tracks. The information CSX provides includes a list of the 25 hazardous materials most frequently shipped through the city, he says. A few years ago, crude oil wasn't on that list, he says, but it now occupies the No. 2 spot. (Other flammable materials are frequently shipped via rail; ethanol holds the No. 1 spot on the top 25 list, Lonthair says.)
A CSX spokesperson did not respond to questions for this story.
The issue here isn't just that more crude oil is being transported via rail. The past year has seen a string of oil train accidents and derailments, many of which led to spills.
A few of these accidents resulted in explosions, which has led some federal agencies to warn that Bakken crude may be more flammable than conventional crude. As a result, some regulators, environmental groups, and communities are questioning the safety of shipping crude oil by rail.
The seriousness of a potential oil train accident has not escaped the attention of local emergency management officials. During meetings of the county-convened Local Emergency Planning Committee, members have discussed the risks posed by rail cars carrying crude oil, Lonthair says, as well as ways to prepare for and respond to an accident.
The Rochester Fire Department has made efforts to better equip and prepare its hazardous materials response team over the last few years, Lonthair says. And this week, Lonthair and other Rochester firefighters are attending a flammable liquids firefighting school in Texas, where they'll learn techniques for battling petroleum and ethanol fires.