Off the Rails: 100s of trains through Region 8 could be 'ticking time bombs'

Off the Rails: 100s of trains through Region 8 could be 'ticking time bombs'
August 2014, Hoxie train collision
August 2014, Hoxie train collision
Blast zones in Region 8
Blast zones in Region 8

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - In recent years, the production of Bakken crude oil out of North Dakota has boomed. With it, the number of trains hauling the highly combustible crude has also increased and train derailments have ended in disaster.

As Region 8 News found out, hundreds of tankers carrying that crude oil often make their way through Northeast Arkansas every week. If a derailment were to happen, thousands of lives would be at risk.

Multiple Region 8 towns are no stranger to train derailments either.

For many, the most memorable incident happened in Hoxie on Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, when two Union Pacific trains collided head-on.

The wreckage forced hundreds for their homes and closed roads for weeks.

The very first responders to the scene were not prepared for what they discovered.

"I was a detective and I was working the night shift that night," Ryan Price recalled. "Got a call of a minor train accident is actually what we got."

Price currently serves as the Weiner police chief. That night, however, he was just down the road at the Walnut Ridge Police Department.

What he saw when he arrived on the scene was anything but a "minor train accident."

"It was a sci-fi movie. We had people screaming, we had fire, we had cars everywhere," Price said.

Price immediately tried to help; but, going into that wreckage meant coming into contact with what was spilling out of those trains.

"Walking up to the scene, there was a little ditch that was going through and you had to walk through it," Price said.

Price told Region 8 News he thought he was walking through water until his legs and feet started burning.

"I was really concerned with what I had on me 'cause we don't know what's on those trains," he said.

Price later learned it was diesel fuel in that ditch. Other dangers at the scene, however, would have done much more harm.

"The burning car was only maybe 15 yards from where we were at," Price said. "It was just a ticking time bomb just waiting to blow. Luckily, it didn't."

But that's not always the case. Recent train derailments in North Dakota, Canada, and Virginia have sparked a national discussion on what trains are carrying.

Environmental group Forest Ethics warns of blast zones along rail lines. In their interactive map, you can see the potential danger zones for multiple Region 8 towns.

The blast zone for the heart of Jonesboro would affect downtown, Johnson Avenue and Arkansas State University.

"One of my concerns since day one is that these railroads converge right beside Arkansas State University," David Moore said.

Moore serves as the Office of Emergency Management director for Craighead County.

"There's always been a chance and will be a chance for a major event in this area," Moore said.

Moore said knowing these trains carry highly explosive materials like Bakken crude oil is concerning.

According to the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, 10 to 12 trains, each carrying more than one million gallons of Bakken crude, travel through multiple Region 8 counties every week.

However Moore told Region 8 News even he doesn't know exactly when those trains carrying crude come through.

He said if an event were to happen, he wouldn't immediately know what that specific train was carrying.

"The manifest of the train is normally kept on, I believe, the engine," Moore said. "Well, if that engine is destroyed, you can't get into it, you don't know what's on that train."

According to the Department of Transportation, since 2008, there has been a 4,000 percent increase in transport of crude oil by rail.

Independent rail consultant Fred Millar said so much is being extracted, rail cars had to come into play.

"They are pumping it out of the ground so fast they don't know what to do with it," Millar said. "Their pipelines are all filled up so they just brought the rail lines into service.

Millar said the problem with that, is that the infrastructure we have now is not designed to deal with the increase.

"This huge load of very dangerous unit trains was put out on the rail lines with no advance notice, no advance preparation," Millar said.

In a recent press conference, the Department of Transportation admitted it is not just the infrastructure that is not up to par.

DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said the tankers in service now need to be stronger.

"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of these shipments reach their destination safely." Foxx said. "The accidents involving crude and ethanol that have occurred though, have shown us that 99.9% isn't enough."

Foxx announced the DOT's plans to build stronger tank cars for flammable liquids.

"Existing tank cars used on high hazard flammable trains today will either have to be retrofitted to meet the new standards we've set or they'll need to be phased out of service," Foxx said.

Braking improvements will also become standard. Unit trains traveling faster than 30 miles per hour will have to use Enhanced Braking Systems, or ECP.

"The bottom line is that ECP brakes in this context of transporting flammable liquids can be the difference between a contained fire and a catastrophe," Foxx said.

Until those regulations go into effect, first responders like Price still worry about what they might run into. Price said if faced with a train crash again, he doesn't know if he'd respond the same way for one simple reason.

"You can't help anybody if you're dead."

Region 8 News submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management seeking the volume, frequency and county by county routes of trains hauling Bakken crude through Region 8 and the state of Arkansas. To read those documents, click here.

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