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.
BNSF spokesman Joseph Faust said his company also does not make such information public for security reasons but does share it with local emergency responders.
But David Barnes, Oklahoma County director of emergency management, said local officials aren't provided information on railroads' crude oil shipments, just as they wouldn't know what types of shipments are moving through a community on the highway.
The railroads do help train emergency responders to recognize placards and other information that indicate when hazardous material being transported.
In a disaster, railroads also operate telephone hotlines to provide emergency responders quick access to information.
“It's an awareness deal,” Barnes said.
Barnes said hazardous materials teams are “absolutely” prepared to handle a derailment disaster. Teams from Oklahoma County communities like Oklahoma City, Midwest City and Edmond train multiple times per year on disaster scenarios, including train derailments, he said.
“We've got tremendous assets that are capable of handing those types of incidents,” Barnes said.
A close call
Angie Paelz has lived in Luther for 42 years, 20 of which she's helped run the town's library, where the town's 1,200 residents check out about 5,000 titles a month — often inspirational fiction with biblical overtones.
The railroad tracks run just across the street from the library, but she hardly takes note when the trains roll by.
On a Friday afternoon in 2008, she was at work when she saw the plume of thick black smoke pouring into the sky northeast of town.
The 110-car BNSF freight train had left Tulsa at 3:30 a.m. After a stop in Stroud and a crew change, it headed out again. The train had been running smoothly when crew members felt it surge forward twice and derail near a rural intersection.
Fourteen cars left the tracks, including eight carrying crude from the Bakken region, which then caught fire. One car exploded and sent a towering fireball hundreds of feet into the air.
Emergency responders evacuated about three dozen people living within a half-mile of the accident for several hours but allowed the fire to burn. Firefighters doused the last flames about 11:30 a.m. the following day. Inspectors later identified a track defect as the cause of the derailment, according to the Federal Railroad Administration's investigation of the accident. Damage to the rail cars and track was estimated at more than $750,000.
The track was owned by the state and managed by the Stillwater Central Railroad Co.
Despite their town's previous close call, the increase in oil shipments by rail and the recent train explosions linked to Bakken oil, Roy and Paelz say they're not overly concerned.
“It's one of those things you can't dwell on,” Roy said.
“Accidents happen, and they can happen anywhere,” Paelz said. “There's no sense in worrying about it.”