U.S. Regulator Warns That Bakken Crude Is More Flammable

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In a safety alert issued Thursday, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) said it was “reinforcing” its requirement to test, characterize, classify, and degasify hazardous materials prior to and during rail transportation. The alert follows derailments of three trains that were transporting crude oil from the Bakken field in North Dakota.

A derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed at least 42 people and vaporized a section of the small town’s business district. That July disaster was followed in November by another derailment and fire in Alabama, and the third incident occurred just last week in North Dakota. No one was injured in the two U.S. derailments, although a small town near the North Dakota incident was evacuated due to potential danger from smoke and fumes.

According to PHMSA’s alert, the companies transporting Bakken crude must take special care to identify properly the potential hazards of the oil being transported. Here’s what the agency had to say:

[L]ight, sweet crude oil, such as that coming from the Bakken region [has] a flashpoint below 73 degrees Fahrenheit and, [for certain materials] the boiling point is below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This means the materials pose significant fire risk if released … in an accident.

None of this prevents an accident, obviously, but proper identification of the crude oil in rail tank cars will help responders determine what steps to take in the event of an incident.

Railroads moved nearly 700,000 carloads of petroleum and petroleum products in the first 51 weeks of 2013, a 31% increase over 2012. That total will very likely rise again in 2014.