FAIRFAX, Iowa — Will Forester spends his days fixing boats. But he thinks about trains.
Every 10 to 20 minutes, he hears the horn of a Union Pacific train as it approaches Forester Marine in downtown Fairfax. The freight trains hauling coal hoppers, tank cars and flatbeds roar by his boat-repair shop, shaking the century-old former depot and making Forester’s ears ring.
“They go by at about 70 miles per hour,” Forester said. “It’s just pretty fast for a little town.”
Included on those trains are DOT-111s, tank cars used to carry ethanol, crude oil and other hazardous liquids across the country despite concerns about the cars’ risk of puncture and fire in a derailment.
Several high-profile train wrecks, including a fiery crash in Canada last summer that killed 47 people, have renewed scrutiny of the DOT-111s, regarded in Iowa and across the nation as the workhorse of the energy industry.
Although never intended for high-speed use, DOT-111s may be driven through some parts of Iowa at nearly four times their recommended speed.
The Canadian government has ordered all DOT-111 cars be upgraded within three years. So far, the U.S. Department of Transportation has issued only piecemeal restrictions and voluntary recommendations.
Outdated cars, hazardous loads
The next time you’re stopped for a train, look for black, tube-shaped tank cars. Those are likely DOT-111s.
“At any one time, you can see literally dozens and dozens of 111s going by,” said Tom Ulrich, operation officer for the Linn County Emergency Management Agency.
If a train derails, hazardous-materials teams are charged with preventing leaks that might cause fire, an explosion or a spill that could damage the environment or kill animals. But officials don’t always know the type or volume of hazardous materials moving through their jurisdictions.
A 2010 commodity study in Johnson County showed 443 million gallons of flammable liquids traveled the Iowa Interstate Railroad, which runs through Iowa City. Flammables included ethanol, petroleum products and paint.
Another 2.3 million gallons of corrosives — including hydrochloric acid, battery acid and potassium hydroxide — shipped via Iowa Interstate and Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railroad (CRANDIC) in 2010, the study showed.
Other hazardous materials moving by rail in Johnson County in 2010 included environmentally hazardous substances, anhydrous ammonia and pesticides.
Linn County almost certainly has higher volumes, Ulrich said. But officials won’t know until after a regional commodity study starting this summer.
Linn County will contribute $9,000 to the first phase of the study, which eventually will include Benton, Buchanan, Cedar, Clayton, Clinton, Delaware, Fayette, Jackson and Jones counties. The local emergency planning committee for the smaller counties already has received $18,000 in Homeland Security grants toward the project, committee chairman Mike Ryan said.
Most rail transport safe
Most hazardous materials are shipped via rail without incident, said Tom Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute, a trade group that acts on behalf of suppliers to North American railroads.
“Over 99 percent of hazardous shipments arrive safely,” he said. “DOT-111’s operate every day of the year safely. They have been built to the standards the DOT has in place.”
There are about 97,000 DOT-111s carrying flammable liquids across the country, Simpson said. More than 40 percent of the cars are carrying crude oil and another 30 percent are freighting ethanol.
“You can see the DOT-111s are an important part of our domestic energy-development service,” he said.
The rail car industry started making safer tank cars in 2011, but with a national uptick in crude production, the DOT-111s are critical to shipping oil from places such as North Dakota and Colorado to refineries in Texas and Louisiana.
Bakken crude a concern
The Bakken formation, which covers about 200,000 square miles in North Dakota, Montana and Canada, has been known to be a vast oil source since the 1950s. But hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has boomed in recent years.
Bakken crude has more flammable gasses and is more likely to explode, the federal government has warned.
Forty-seven people were killed July 6 when a runaway 74-car freight train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The train, carrying Bakken crude in DOT-111 tank cars, started fire and several tank cars exploded, destroying more than 30 buildings.
The area was flooded with crude and other chemicals that are still being cleaned up today.
A train carrying crude nearly toppled a bridge in Philadelphia in January, and another crude oil train derailed and caught fire in downtown Lynchburg, Va., last month. That fire caused an evacuation of hundreds of people and spilled oil into the James River.
It’s hard to tell where Bakken oil is being shipped in Iowa.
Canadian Pacific, which describes itself as the “only rail carrier providing single line haul service between the Bakken and major crude oil markets in the Northeastern United States,” has an online map showing routes that appear to go from Mason City through Eastern Iowa towns that include New Hampton, Postville and Marquette.
A 2012 crude-by-rail map published by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration shows heavy Bakken transports along the Canadian Pacific line that runs on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River.
Officials from Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific would not confirm whether Bakken oil is being shipped on their railroads.
“For security reasons, we don’t provide specifics,” Canadian Press spokesman Ed Greenberg said.
Onna Houck, corporate counsel for Iowa Interstate Railroad, said the company does not ship Bakken oil on its 500 miles of track in Iowa.
Starting in June, railroads that ship 1 million gallons of more of Bakken crude on a single train must notify each state’s emergency response commission, according to a May 7 emergency order from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Ethanol shipped in DOT-111s
Ethanol also can be dangerous when it’s shipped in outdated tank cars.
An Oct. 7, 2011, trip on the Iowa Interstate Railroad ended in disaster when 26 cars jumped the tracks near Tiskilwa, Ill. Of 10 DOT-111s carrying ethanol, three erupted in massive fireballs causing officials to evacuate the town of 750 people, the National Transportation and Safety Board reported.
“The poor performance of DOT-111 general specification tank cars in derailments suggests that DOT-111 tank cars are inadequately designed to prevent punctures and breaches, and that catastrophic release of hazardous materials can be expected,” the NTSB said.
Iowa Interstate Railroad ships ethanol from plants with a combined capacity of more than 1 billion gallons, Houck said. Railroads can’t reject legal loads, even if the freight is hazardous material.
As the shippers own or lease the rail cars, railroads have little say over the use of DOT-111s.
ADM, which produces ethanol as part of its grain-processing operations in Cedar Rapids, declined to speak with The Gazette about its use of DOT-111s. Penford Products, which also has an ethanol plant, did not return calls seeking an interview.
Speed can influence derailments
It’s not just the materials inside a train but the speed that can increase risk.
Albert Ratner, a University of Iowa associate professor of mechanical engineering who studies fires during train derailments, said DOT-111s were designed to drive about 18 miles per hour. With less than half an inch of steel around the center, weak end caps and easily damaged valves, the DOT-111 doesn’t hold up well in a crash, he said.
“If you’re in areas where they’re going 40, 50 miles an hour, you’re really rolling the dice because if the car derails, the car’s not designed for that,” Ratner said.
Emergency manager Ulrich agreed.
“When they derail, even at low speeds, there’s the opportunity for the valving to shear off, top and bottom, and for the tank itself to be compromised,” he said.
The Union Pacific line through Fairfax has a speed limit of 70 miles per hour, with engineers reducing the speed to 50 mph only if there are 20 or more cars with hazardous materials, Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said.
“In a lot of rural communities, faster is better because the crossings aren’t blocked for as long,” Davis said.
The speed limit on Iowa Interstate Railroad is 40 mph. Canadian Pacific’s tracks through Iowa vary from 10 to 40 mph.
Stopgaps and precautions
The rail car supply industry so far has built more than 17,000 upgraded tankers that include thicker steel, stronger end caps and more protection for top fittings, Simpson said. They will have 55,000 by the end of 2015.
But until the DOT-111s can be replaced, the industry is using stopgaps and precautions.
The UI’s Ratner has researched fuel additives that prevent mist, which is often what ignites in a train derailment. The additives can save lives but cost five to 10 cents per gallon, he said.
Canadian Pacific introduced a $325-per-car surcharge in March for all older tank cars as a way to encourage shippers to upgrade, Greenberg said.
Union Pacific tries to keep its tracks in top condition to prevent derailments, invests heavily in education for employees about hauling hazardous materials and works with emergency managers in every county, Davis said.
Still, accidents happen. A train on UP lines dumped 6,500 gallons of oil during a derailment May 9 near LaSalle, Colo.
“We have to work with our customers to help make the transportation of their products safer,” Davis said.
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