LUTHER — Sitting on his tractor in a field across the road from his family's feed mill, Grant Roy watched a massive fireball rise above a distant tree line.
Railroad tank cars carrying crude oil had screeched off the rails and burst into flames outside this northeast Oklahoma County town, sending fire and black smoke high into the hot, blue sky.
Just three miles and minutes more down the track, the train would have been running past neighborhoods, the library, a hardware store, and Luther Mill & Supply, the business Roy's family has operated for three generations.
“You always think that it could happen again,” Roy, 32, said recently recalling the Aug. 22, 2008, accident. “The tracks go right up next to our feed mill. If one derailed against it, it would pretty much wipe us out.”
A recent surge in the amount of oil being carried by rail coupled with several recent fiery derailments is raising concerns in Congress and elsewhere about the safety of such shipments and the preparedness of communities located along rail lines to respond to spills or explosions.
In the past six months, derailments involving trains loaded with crude from the Bakken region in North Dakota and Wyoming led to massive explosions and fires in North Dakota, Alabama and Quebec. The Canadian disaster killed 47 people and leveled a community's downtown.
The accidents have prompted increased federal scrutiny and a safety warning that Bakken-region crude has a lower flash point than traditional heavy crude, poses a “significant fire risk” and warrants careful handling. Regulators also have raised concern about some older oil-tanker cars they say are vulnerable to leaks and explosions.
Meanwhile, the chairmen of the Senate Energy and Transportation committees earlier this month called the derailments alarming and urged the Obama administration to evaluate whether federal rules adequately address the risk involved in such shipments.
The issue is of particular relevance in Oklahoma, which has become a major hub for oil-by-rail shipments, many of which pass through densely populated areas.
A BNSF Railway Co. official, for example, said in December that the company expects to handle 600,000 barrels of crude a day by rail this year, much of it moving from, to or through Oklahoma.
The company operates 1,400 miles of track in the state with rail yards in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Enid and Madill.
Despite the headline-grabbing accidents, rail industry officials in Oklahoma say safety is a priority, that they are constantly evaluating and improving safety procedures and that one accident is too many.
Safety and security
In the years since the Luther derailment, a fracking bonanza in the Bakken shale bolstered the U.S. oil supply. Now, almost every day, tank cars loaded with hundreds of thousands of barrels of Bakken oil fan out over the nation's rails.
So just how much of the more-volatile Bakken variety of crude is rolling through backyards and fields of Oklahoma? The average citizen has no way of knowing and no way of finding out.
Because of security reasons, no details about the shipments are released to the public, although emergency response officials are provided with information, said Raquel Espinoza, spokeswoman for Union Pacific, which operates 1,173 miles of track, with key hubs in Muskogee and Chickasha.