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Stop the Flaming Fracked Oil: Bakken Shale Oil Trains Full of Dangerous Volatile Chemicals

January 7, 2014

Ok. Someone’s got to say it. So we will. Stop the Bakken Shale oil trains!

The fracking in North Dakota is bad enough– harming health, water, air, and wrecking communities with evictions, rising crime rates, and all that comes with a violent boom.

The flaring is extreme: surely by now you’ve seen the photos of the Bakken Shale flaring? With 1,500 fires burning, it can be seen from outer space. The destructiveness to our climate is scientifically documented and can be seen with the naked eye, unlike the fugitive methane emissions that can be seen only with a FLIR camera.

But this — packing rail cars not designed to transport volatile, toxic, high-pressure gasses like benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene — and then putting shale oil mixed with 30 percent to 40 percent volatile chemicals, including the carcinogen benzene — and then sending those trains through residential neighborhoods across the country — is beyond.

The mushroom-shaped fireball in Casselton should tell anyone these are no ordinary fires. The Bakken Shale oil is super-flammable, full of volatile gasses, and something is wrong with any official anywhere who lets these trains through their town. Forty-seven people are dead from the Lac-Megantic explosion, and fire from these exploding trains have filled the sky four times in six months, most recently on December 30th in Casselton, North Dakota.

Fireball goes up in Casselton, North Dakota. Photo: AP — Bruce Crummy

Scientists and engineers are questioning whether, in fact, the derailments are causing the explosions, or the other way around. Watch the ten-minute video discussion with scientist Scott Smith, embedded in this Desmogblog post, to learn more. In the Alabama and North Dakota incidents, the engine cars stayed on the tracks, Smith says, whereas the exploded part of the train may have derailed because the Bakken Shale oil exploded into flames when the volatile chemicals, including the carcinogen benzene, turned from liquid to gas and ignited due to the presence of any static electricity or spark.

The Bakken Shale oil train series of explosions is so extraordinary that we are reposting in full, below, the Desmogblog piece by Steve Horn which has been making national news for 48 hours, including a mention on Democracy Now! on January 6th. This is top notch investigative reporting:

Exclusive: Permit Shows Bakken Shale Oil in Casselton Train Explosion Contained High Levels of Volatile Chemicals

On January 2, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a major safety alert, declaring oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the Bakken Shale may be more chemically explosive than the agency or industry previously admitted publicly.

This alert came three days after the massive Casselton, ND explosion of a freight rail train owned by Warren Buffett‘s Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and was the first time the U.S. Department of Transportation agency ever made such a statement about Bakken crude. In July 2013, another freight train carrying Bakken crude exploded in Lac-Mégantic, vaporizing and killing 47 people.

Yet, an exclusive DeSmogBlog investigation reveals the company receiving that oil downstream from BNSF — Marquis Missouri Terminal LLC, incorporated in April 2012 by Marquis Energy — already admitted as much in a September 2012 permit application to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The BNSF Direct “bomb train” that exploded in Casselton was destined for Marquis’ terminal in Hayti, Missouri, according to Reuters. Hayti is a city of 2,939 located along the Mississippi River. From there, Marquis barges the oil southward along the Mississippi, where Platts reported the oil may eventually be refined in a Memphis, Tennessee-based Valero refinery.

According to Marquis’ website, its Hayti, Missouri terminal receives seven of BNSF Direct’s 118-unit cars per week, with an on-site holding terminal capacity of 550,000 barrels of oil.

Marquis was one of many companies in attendance at a major industry conference in Houston, Texas in February 2013, called “Upgrading Crude By Rail Capacity.” Its September 2012 Missouri DNR permit application lends additional insight into how and why BNSF’s freight train erupted so intensely in Casselton.

Watch: 29-second video showing mushroom-cloud-shaped fireball and smoke plume.

“Special Conditions”

Rather than a normal permit, Marquis was given a “special conditions” permit because the Bakken oil it receives from BNSF contains high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the same threat PHMSA noted in its recent safety alert.

Among the most crucial of the special conditions: Marquis must flare off the VOCs before barging the oil down the Mississippi River. (Flaring is already a highly controversial practice in the Bakken Shale region, where gas is flared off at rates comparable to Nigeria.)

It’s a tacit admission that the Bakken Shale oil aboard the exploded BNSF train in Casselton, ND is prone to such an eruption.

“Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) emissions are expected from the proposed equipment,” explains the Marquis permit. “There will be evaporative losses of Toluene, Xylene, Hexane, and Benzene from the crude oil handled by the installation.”

Benzene is a carcinogen, while toluenexylene and hexane are dangerous volatiles that can cause severe illnesses or even death at high levels of exposure.

Scientific Vindication

In a December 31 Google Hangout conversation between actor Mark Ruffalo, founder of Water Defense, and the group’s chief scientist Scott Smith, Mr. Smith discussed the oil samples he collected on a previous visit to North Dakota’s Bakken Shale.

“What I know from the testing I’ve done on my own — I went out to the Bakken oil fields and pumped oil from the well — I know there are unprecedented levels of these explosive volatiles: benzene, toluene, xylene,” said Smith.

“And from the data that I’ve gotten from third parties and tested myself, 30 to 40 percent of what’s going into those rail cars are explosive volatiles, again that are not in typical oils.”

Watch: video of scientist Scott Smith discussing volatile organic chemicals in Bakken Shale oil, and the oil train derailments, with Mark Ruffalo (ten minutes).

In an interview with DeSmogBlog, Smith said Marquis Energy’s Missouri DNR permit application is in line with his own scientific findings, a vindication of sorts in the aftermath of the Casselton explosion. 

“We must work to better understand the risks involved with the transportation of unconventional crude oil, whether diluted bitumen or Bakken fracked oil,” Smith told DeSmogBlog.

“It all starts with scientifically and transparently understanding exactly what is in these crude oils, and working to set new safety standards to protect human lives and all waterways, wetlands, marshes and sensitive ecosystems.”

It may be the dead of winter in North Dakota, but the Casselton explosion has shined a bright light on the myriad serious threats of Bakken oil rolling down the tracks through the backyards of thousands of Americans. The industry’s secrecy about the explosiveness of this oil just went up in flames.

But how will the public react to the news that industry knew this could happen all along? With the Dec. 30 explosion in Casselton, and the deadly Bakken oil train explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec last July, all North Americans ought to question the wisdom of extracting and transporting this highly dangerous oil.

To see this post on its home site visit Desmogblog.

  1. January 7, 2014 6:30 am

    thanks, Iris, for saying this and reporting on this….it is a disgrace that our Country allows such dangers to the public…..

  2. January 7, 2014 4:36 pm

    It would take a huge effort, but there are certainly millions of people along the lines that CSX K040 train runs. Maybe folks in grassroots organizations throughout New York and New Jersey could somehow be notified of the threat. Here is what I see in a search of the route (and thanks to Beth for getting me started down this path):

    Bakken Shale Oil train is CSX K040
    Where does it go? What does it threaten? How many at risk?

    INTRO: Some initial research indicates the train puts many communities along the CSX route, especially its River Line (as called by train spotters, what CSX calls its River Subdivision). This is a brief overview of the places threatened along the way as the train makes its way to it Philadelphia terminus for the oild


    Train appears to come across from Chicago and through New York State on what has historically been know and the “Water Level Route”

    The map at the top of this Wiki entry shows the scope of train lines coming across from Chicago through Erie and Buffalo and onward to the east to connect to the “River Line.”

    Train appears to come down the CSX River Line. Where does that go? (Note: CSX may also move the train along other routes, but this route seems to be the one most mentioned by train spotters who have seen the CSX K040>)
    (Page through this site to see where the train runs, through pristine natural areas and heavily populated urban areas).
    Major points of interest along the River Subdivision route listed below. MP is the abbreviation for MilePost. Mileposts progress numerically from south to north.
    • MP QR 1.6 – Beginning of and southernmost point of River Subdivision
    • MP QR 7.2 – Bogota; defect detector
    • MP QR 18.8 – New Jersey / New York State Border
    • MP QR 20.5 – Orangeburg defect detector
    • MP QR 24.5 – Nyack
    • MP QR 32.9 – Haverstraw Tunnel
    • MP QR 33.4 – West Haverstraw Yard
    • MP QR 38.5 – Stony Point defect detector
    • MP QR 41.0 – Iona Island (a public and popular raifanning location)
    • MP QR 42.7 – Fort Montgomery Tunnel
    • MP QR 47.3 – West Point Tunnel
    • MP QR 56.5 – Newburgh
    • MP QR 61.0 – Roseton defect detector
    • MP QR 84.4 – Hercules defect detector
    • MP QR 86.4 – Wilbur Trestle
    • MP QR 86.8 – Kingston Tunnel
    • MP QR 88.8 – Kingston Yard
    • MP QR 99.1 – Saugerties defect detector
    • MP QR 104.8 – Alsen Yard
    • MP QR 108.1 – Catskill defect detector
    • MP QR 110. – Catskill Trestle
    • MP QR 114.9 – Athens defect detector
    • MP QR 128.5 – Ravena defect detector
    • MP QR 132.6 – CP-SK / Selkirk: northernmost point of River Subdivision, turns west and merges into Castleton Subdivision and Selkirk Yard.
    One of the most popular locations on this route is Iona Island. Iona Island is a public access nature reserve and the River Subdivision transects the island. Being public access allows railfans to photograph and observe trains without trespassing on railroad property.
    Iona Island, NY,%20USA

    Puts this reserve at risk:

    CSX had four eastward unit oil trains working the Water Level route between Buffalo and Selkirk, New York.

    Some YouTube videos of the train:

    (train shown going through South Plainfield, NJ)

    (has other locations where train was seen)
    1:05 P.M. – Teaneck, NJ
    1:44 P.M. – Bogota, NJ ( CC Boards )
    1:51 P.M. – Ridgefield Park, NJ

    (seen at West Trenton Station)

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