Derailment in Dubuque--A Reminder of the Hazards of Transporting Oil by Rail

Feb 13, 2015

With at least one million gallons of crude oil and ethanol passing through Iowa on a single freight train, derailments like the one last week a few miles from Dubuque are a major concern.

"As ethanol dilutes into the water, it's kind of that process that depletes the oxygen from the water," says Kevin Baskins, spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "That's something we're going to continue to monitor in the near future."

Baskins says that the cleanup is going well so far, and they are in the process of sparging air, a process that involves evaporating the ethanol into the air rather that letting it dissolve into the water.

Erin Jordan, reporter with The Gazette and KCRG-TV9, says that derailments with DOT-111s can be especially problematic, as they are vulnerable to puncture in a derailment. DOT-111s are a type of train car commonly used to transport crude oil and ethanol, as well as other hazardous materials.

"A Johnson County commodity study showed, in addition to ethanol, there was also battery acid, anhydrous ammonia, pesticides, paint [...] and so you can imagine there would be an environmental effect to those," she says.

Right now, nine Iowa counties have extra large shipments of crude oil traveling through. While area residents are not notified of what materials are being hauled through their communities, Canadian Pacific Railway's spokesperson Andy Cummings says they will answer specific questions from emergency responders.

"They can contact the railroad, and we will make that information available to them," says Andy Cummings. "For security reasons, we do not share details of our dangerous goods movements publicly."

Canadian Pacific Railway and BNSF Railway Co. also report large shipments of Bakken crude oil to Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

"There has to be more with respect to openness and disclosure of the chemicals that are being transported," says David Cwiertny, associate faculty research engineer for the IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa.

"When a spill happens, it's immediate that you have to alert the public, you have to have a plan in place to respond, and you can't do that if you're trying to figure out what's in the chemical that actually spilled."