Palisade wonders if large-scale rail disaster could happen here
About 10 trains a day barrel through downtown Palisade on tracks that bisect this town of fewer than 2,700 people. To the south is the grocery store where locals greet each other. Just beyond is a few blocks of downtown shops and cafes in the heart of orchard and grape-growing country. A stone’s throw north, locals and visitors sample the labors of this usually verdant agriculture country — a winery, a distillery, a medical marijuana shop, a brewery. Farther north sit century-old farmhouses and ornate, neatly trimmed Victorian homes and bed and breakfasts that lend Palisade its charm.
This is the view Mayor Roger Granat took in from the railroad tracks on a recent winter day. A second-generation former peach farmer, Granat’s roots run as deep as the trees in the orchards and the vines in the vineyards that hug the east-west tracks. Even more than his living history of Palisade, the small town, second-time mayor thinks about his community in terms of friends and family.
But Granat gets a little uneasy thinking about the images of mass destruction wrought by recent train derailments in Casselton, N.D., and news of the 47 people who were killed in the small Quebec town of Lac-Megantic after a runaway train incinerated a portion of town.
Those towns aren’t so unlike his beloved Palisade, all with railroad tracks running through their core and small populations — Lac-Megantic with about 6,000 people and Casselton with 2,400.
“If we had an explosion similar to the one in Canada it would affect everything clear up to Eighth Street,” Granat said, gesturing toward the town’s densest residential area. “We have those same possibilities. If you only knew what came through here, either on the trains or on the interstate. Just a derailment and no explosion — that would be catastrophic,” he said.
Indeed, communities and legislators have been sensitive to the destructive scale of the collisions, calling for stricter regulations on identifying chemicals inside rail tanker cars and reinforced rail cars that carry flammable items.
Palisade also is taking a proactive stance, and town trustees soon are expected to pass a resolution requesting real-time information about what chemicals are rolling through town in rail cars. In the event of an incident, emergency first responders can more quickly stem the damage, they believe. Their resolution also supports a shift toward more reinforced rail cars for hazardous materials.
“This is brought about by accidents and loss of life,” Granat said. “The MSD (material safety data) sheets, we need to have that availability. We need to get to that immediately. Those sheets are very important. They’re kind of like telling you the chemicals underneath your kitchen sink.”
The derailments in North Dakota and Quebec involved rail cars carrying crude oil.
No crude oil currently is transported through Palisade, or the Grand Valley for that matter, Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said. However, that could change if a company began producing crude oil and needed to move it through the area. Davis said there are plenty of flammable chemicals on rail tanker cars, but exactly which chemicals is not information the railroad distributes because of safety concerns. Davis said Union Pacific would and does provide that information to emergency workers in communities.
In fact, Union Pacific in the past has provided communities with printers that spew out data on chemicals inside tankers as they’re passing through.
“Within days (emergency workers) ask for them to be removed,” Davis said. “It’s overwhelming. They felt the training would be enough. You look at a 100-car train and it’s quite a few pages.”
Placards on cars
Davis said Union Pacific provides training to first responders and specifically travels to communities that request it. The railroad also offers a biannual course in Pueblo for hands-on emergency training that, for example, shows responders how to turn off a tanker’s valves. Every year the railroad trains 2,500 local and statewide first responders, Davis said. Since 2003, the railroad has trained 37,700 first responders and 7,500 private responders, including shippers.
“If we’re bringing it to a community, we might bring a tank car and simulate an emergency with water,” Davis said. “It teaches them how to see a vapor coming off based on the wind.”
Although Davis said he could not specifically identify the chemicals hauled through the Grand Valley, anyone with a little patience can figure it out by waiting near the tracks for a train to come through. All tankers carrying flammable liquids and hazardous materials must be labeled with a hazardous material placard, with numbers that correspond to a chemical. Translation tables can be found online. Companies own the rail cars and are responsible for labeling the cars.
Trains hauling coal from Utah mines head east through the Grand Valley. Davis said 10 trains a day travel through the area, including Amtrak, but there are fewer coal trains than in recent years because of a slowdown in coal production.
Train derailments are rare in the Grand Valley, except for one major fiery explosion in 1943. Since 2005, there have been 79 releases of hazardous materials by trains in Colorado, resulting in one person being hospitalized and causing $341,030 in damages. Yet, according to information compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation, only one of those incidents has been on the Western Slope. The majority occurred in Denver.
On June 2, 2009, an official with Union Pacific reported that one-sixteenth of a gallon — 8 ounces — of gasoline mixed with less than 10 percent of ethyl alcohol vented off in Grand Junction when a vacuum relief valve failed. The incident cost $750. The load was being hauled from Commerce City for Conoco Phillips.
After Lac-Megantic’s fateful July 6, 2013, tragedy, Palisade Town Administrator Rich Sales looked up on Google Earth to compare how the devastation would impact his town. He figured a similar wave of destruction would take out several blocks of downtown and homes — nearly all of it.
“The thing about Quebec is, they never thought this would happen,” Sales said. “We never think bad things are going to happen.”
Palisade borrowed a draft of the resolution calling for improved rail car standards from Fort Collins, which also has train traffic running through its core. Trustees plan to approve a streamlined copy of that resolution at their next meeting. Palisade also agreed to sign on to a letter by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall’s office urging the U.S. Department of Transportation to more quickly implement safety standards for rail cars. According to Udall’s letter, only about 15,000 of the nation’s 94,000 rail tankers carrying oil and flammable liquids meet puncture-resistant standards and other safety standards.