PHMSA issues safety alert on Bakken crude flammability

The US Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a safety alert to shippers and carriers, emergency responders, and the general public that Bakken crude should be handled carefully because it may be more flammable than other grades.

The Jan. 2 notice followed preliminary inspections after recent rail derailments involving Bakken crude in North Dakota, Alabama, and Lac Megantic, Que., PHMSA said. It reinforces the requirement to properly test, characterize, classify, and where appropriate sufficiently degasify hazardous materials prior to and during transportation, it said.

The advisory followed one PHMSA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) jointly published on Nov. 20, 2013. The latest notice came soon after a BNSF train carrying Bakken crude caught fire west of Fargo, ND, after it struck a derailed train carrying agricultural goods on Dec. 30 (OGJ Online, Jan. 2, 2013).

PHMSA said it and FRA have jointly initiated “Operation Classification,” a compliance initiative involving unannounced inspections and testing of crude oil samples to verify that offerors of the materials have been properly classified and describe the hazardous materials.

Preliminary testing has focused on classification and packing group assignments for crude oil that measure some of its inherent chemical properties, the agency said. “Nonetheless, the agencies have found it necessary to expand the scope of their testing to measure other factors that would affect the proper characterization and classification of the materials,” it added.

Expects results soon

PHMSA said it expects to have final test results soon for Bakken crude’s gas content, corrosivity, toxicity, flammability, and other characteristics which should inform its proper characterization more clearly.

“This is not a new issue,” said Brigham A. McCown, a former DOT official who was PHMSA’s first acting administrator during George W. Bush’s administration. “It previously wrote a guide for fire-fighters so when they arrive at an accident, they can use a four-digit number that explains what they’re facing. PHMSA simply wants everything properly classified so firefighters know what to do.”

It’s essential that crude oil is correctly classified because more and different grades are being produced domestically now, he told OGJ. “We’re transferring more crude oil and energy products—especially by rail and even by truck—than we have traditionally because we don’t have the necessary pipeline infrastructure,” said McCown, who now works as a consultant.

PHMSA and FRA are working well together, possibly because PHMSA’s hazardous materials administrator came from FRA, he suggested. “They really are evaluating tank car design standards, and saying it would be possible to use a new design that would be effective but costly,” he said.

“I think the discussion will become accelerated as more oil is shipped by rail and more incidents occur,” McCown said. “The haz-mat standards are constantly evolving with the technology, and that’s a good thing.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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