An AP story over the weekend filled in some crucial numbers on the volume of highly flammable oil transported across Arkansas by railroad: up to 33 trains per week that use Arkansas rail lines are carrying crude originating in the Bakken shale formation in the Dakotas, according to correspondence between rail operators and the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management (ADEM) that was obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by the AP. Crude from the Bakken formation is exceptionally flammable due to its chemical composition, say regulators.
An average oil-bearing train is loaded up with over a million gallons of petroleum — the 2013 Mayflower oil spill was an estimated 210,000 gallons, by way of reference — and all but one is operated by Union Pacific:
Union Pacific expected to have 13-15 Bakken oil trains in eastern Arkansas and 3-5 in the Arkansas River Valley weekly, the letters show. It also temporarily routed 10-12 trains weekly through southern Arkansas to bypass track work in Louisiana. BNSF reported in a letter it had one train using tracks in northeastern Arkansas.
The letters indicate that three to five oil-bearing trains pass through Mayflower each week — and thus also through Conway and Little Rock. Most of the oil transported by rail through Arkansas passes through UP lines in Pine Bluff.
Rail companies have kept a tight lid on such details, saying the information is proprietary and citing national security concerns. When Leslie Newell Peacock reported on this story for the Arkansas Times in February, the numbers were unavailable — but in May, after a series of high profile disasters featuring tanker cars full of oil, the Obama administration began requiring rail companies to share information with state emergency readiness agencies to better prepare for accidents. New federal regulations that will set higher safety standards for oil tanker cars are pending.
Although rail companies have reluctantly shared information with state emergency agencies like ADEM, they’ve asked states to agree not to share the information with the public, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Some states have refused; others, such as Arkansas, have agreed to sign nondisclosure agreements. But whatever ADEM signed, it’s evidently not FOIA-proof.
Interest in the safety of Arkansas railroads has been renewed following an August 17th Union Pacific train collision near Hoxie that killed two rail workers and injured two others. That train was not carrying oil, but one ruptured car that was carrying alcohol did cause a fire, forcing the evacuation of some 500 nearby residents. Imagine what damage a dozen cars full of Bakken crude would have wrought.
*Note: I’ve changed the title on this post to be more accurate. It was originally titled “Up to 33 million gallons of oil traverse Arkansas by train each week”, but that amount could be higher based on the volume of oil carried by some trains. H/t blog commenter Sound Policy.