Danger on the Rails: Concerns in Louisiana

Danger on the Rails: Concerns in Louisiana

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Lawrence Harris knows how disastrous a train derailment can be.

"We were all asleep and we heard some explosions but we didn't know what they were," he explained.

In 1987, a CSX train traveling through Gentilly leaked butadiene, a volatile compound used in making synthetic rubber. Railcars caught on fire, yet Harris says the response to the accident was slow.

"They were ablaze and burning about a block from my house and nobody said anything," he said. "So we got up and started evacuating on our own."

When he and his neighbors eventually returned home, there wasn't much left. "It was filled with silt and smut and residue from the burning tank car," Harris said.

More than 20 years later, Harris is re-located to a new house across from the same railroad tracks. He says he worries every day about what's being transported in front of his home.

"This cargo has shown itself to be very dangerous," said rail consultant Fred Millar.

Millar is talking about crude oil. According to the Energy Information Administration, more and more oil is being transported on American railroads each year. In 2008, only 9,500 rail cars carried it. In the first seven months of 2014, that number spiked to 200,000.

"We have a potential here for mass casualties with a giant fire event," Millar said.

One type of oil responsible for a number of fiery rail disasters in North America is Bakken crude. Bakken crude is very flammable and comes from the Bakken shale formation which spreads across the Northern U.S. and part of Canada. Millar says, often times, it's transported in old, shoddy rail cars.

"The DOT 111 tank cars, I call them Pepsi cans on wheels. I mean, they're very, very thin-skinned, they break open very easily," Millar explained.

One of the most glaring examples of what goes wrong when Bakken crude is spilled occurred in Quebec, Canada. In July of 2013, an explosion there killed 47 people and leveled most of downtown Lac-Megantic.

In February of this year, 27 cars of a CSX train left the tracks during a snow storm in southern West Virginia. The derailment sent a fireball into the sky and threatened the water supply of nearby residents.

"It's scary to think of something like that happening," said Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper Paul Orr.

Orr is tasked with keeping an eye on environmental issues in the Mississippi river basin. "An incident with oil spilling in the river can have tremendous impacts on the economy, on shipping, and of course if it were to happen in a populated place, on people's health," Orr said.

Not to mention the public's drinking supply.

"Everybody south of Baton Rouge gets their drinking water from the river," he said. "You have a spill, those drinking water intakes get shut down."

Part of Orr's concern stems from the amount of crude oil being transported through Louisiana.

Last May, the Department of Transportation issued an emergency order, requiring railroads to notify state officials about the volume, frequency and routes of trains carrying one million or more gallons of crude oil from the Bakken region. We filed public records requests to get a copy of the information from the state. The state initially fought our requests, but ultimately, gave us the documents.

They show that between July of 2014 to March of 2015, more than 63 million gallons of crude oil traveled through New Orleans. Tracks take the cars along the river through Old Jefferson, to Uptown, and then on to the Gulf Gateway Terminal on the Intracoastal Waterway. There, the rail cars are transported to barges and ships.

"It's definitely something that's booming. We're seeing an incredible increase in crude on the rails," Orr said.

The City of New Orleans says it's emergency response agencies are always undergoing drills, exercises and trainings to better handle emergency situations. In Jefferson Parish, a similar story. But the parish also uses a tool on the EPA's website for guidance.

Bob Darcey, head of the parish's Hazmat unit explains, "We have a modeling software that we use and we can actually model a spill and predict where we might find the vapors and the levels we might find."

Both parishes say they'll use alert systems, calling and texting residents in case of a derailment and they'll also go door to door to get people out of their homes.

"In some cases, an evacuation area can be pretty large," Darcey said.

We're talking a mile or more around the derailment site. Trains expert Fred Millar says Southeast Louisiana is even more at risk because it's so populated and the trains travel so close to historic sites like the French Quarter.

"One thing we have in our favor is the rail speeds through Jefferson Parish are about 20 miles an hour," Darcey said.

On the New Orleans Public Belt tracks, trains can only travel 10 miles per hour. Yet the condition of the rail cars transporting such hazardous chemicals are such a concern, that just two weeks ago, the Department of Transportation rolled out new standards for them.

The directives include a new braking requirement for certain trains and new operational protocols for cars carrying large volumes of flammable liquids. While the new requirements are seen as a positive, Fred Millar points out, many deadly derailments could've been prevented with a better constructed tank car.

"NTSB 20 years ago was warning federal regulators that this is an inadequate tank car, you should be designing a much more adequate tank car and in fact they said in any serious derailment or collision the DOT 111 quote 'should be expected to lose its contents'," Millar explained.

That's what happened in Casselton, North Dakota in December of 2013. There weren't any casualties but a massive evacuation of the city occurred. At the time, the mayor said the town dodged a bullet.

"We have a new phenomenon where the rail lines are doing a very risky operational procedure of running these crude oil trains in what they call unit trains, which means 100 cars of crude oil in one train. They're very heavy, they're more than a mile long and they set each other off so the unit trains, that's the game changer here," Millar said.

Millar thinks that's what's contributing to so many of these accidents. He says it's something the rail companies must start taking accountability for and changing their ways.

Back in Gentilly, Lawrence Harris hopes new federal regulations will keep him and his family safe. But he admits, he probably won't ever feel 100 percent secure.

"We live in that corridor so that's what we have to deal with," Harris said.

He's just praying he won't be a victim again and have to live through a terrifying ordeal that nearly wiped out a section of New Orleans.

The Association of American Railroads says it supports the upgrading of rail cars carrying crude oil, to better enhance safety. It also says, each year, railroads train about 20,000 emergency first responders in local communities in case of a disaster and spill.

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