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New rules for trains transporting crude oil

Harvey Henkelmann
wikimedia commons

Updated:  9:45 a.m. April 20, 2015

Crude oil production has skyrocketed in the U.S. in recent years, primarily from the Bakken oil fields, where new technologies have made it possible to access reserves that were previously out of reach.

There aren't enough pipelines to carry all that oil, so trains are doing a lot more of the transporting.

In 2008, trains hauled 9,500 carloads of crude oil in the U.S. By 2013, that number rose to 435,560 carloads.

And that means there's more potential for accidents, like the recent fiery train derailment in West Virginia on February 16. Emergency responders battled the blaze for three days.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued an emergency order for trains transporting crude oil to slow down to 40 miles per hour when traveling through highly populated areas like Detroit. The Department of Homeland Security calls them High Threat Urban Areas.

The order also applies to trains hauling ethanol, another potentially explosive material.

Ron Leix is a public information officer for the Michigan State Police, which is in charge of emergency management for the state.

He says trains carry Bakken crude oil through 14 counties in the state, although the exact routes are not disclosed for security reasons.

He says Michigan has been lucky so far.

"There have been no incidents involving Bakkan crude oil shipments in Michigan," says Leix. "There have been incidents nearby in Illinois, in West Virginia, and every time there is an incident it keeps us on our toes."

Leix says the state is setting up regional work groups of emergency responders and other agencies to better prepare for train derailments, along with other emergency events.

The state is also planning a one-day training course for responders specifically for train-crude oil derailments.

Leix says in addition to accidents, the state is concerned about the possibility of terrorism.  He says anyone who observes someone acting suspiciously near trains should report it.

Leix also says people who live near train tracks should have an emergency evacuation plan in place, along with emergency supplies they can quickly grab to take with them.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that trains transport crude oil through 12 Michigan counties.  The correct numbre is 14.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.