How prepared is Minnesota for an oil train derailment?

Oil train derailment
This aerial Feb. 17, 2015 file photo photo made available by the Office of the Governor of West Virginia shows a derailed train in Mount Carbon, WVa. As investigators in West Virginia and Ontario pick through the wreckage from the latest pair of oil train derailments to result in massive fires, U.S. transportation officials predict many more catastrophic wrecks involving flammable fuels in coming years absent new regulations.
Steven Wayne Rotsch | AP file

If a train carrying crude oil derails and explodes near a populated area in Minnesota, the priority for the fire department isn't going to be extinguishing the flames. It will be evacuating the area.

"Really we need to focus on getting people out of the way," Kevin Reed, Minnesota's homeland security director, told MPR News Tuesday.

Reed has been training first responders around the state to develop evacuation plans for neighborhoods located within half a mile of a railroad track. That's important, because putting out a burning oil train is extremely difficult.

Greg Newinski, battalion chief for the St. Cloud Fire Department, estimates it would take about 1,500 gallons of fire suppression foam concentrate and 48,000 gallons of water to extinguish such a fire. The typical fire truck carries between 500 and 1,000 gallons of water and just 25 gallons of foam concentrate.

"We don't have enough foam. There's not foam close by and we can't apply it in a manner that is really going to make a difference," a battalion chief for the St. Cloud Fire Department.

Newinski says crews would likely have to let the fire simply burn, while using water to cool other tanker cars to keep the fire from spreading.

There have been at least four crude oil train derailments in north America in just the last month. Luckily, none happened in populated areas.

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, touted the industry's safety record, noting that 99.997 percent of trains carrying hazardous cargo arrive at their destinations without incident. But he said railroads understand they need to implement additional safety improvements.

"We recognize, especially in light of the recent incidents, we need to do more," Greenberg said.

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