Preparing Emergency Responders for Crude Oil Disasters

State emergency responders are equipped to handle crude oil disasters, but it could take hours for them to arrive.

By Brenda Flanagan

Fireballs lit the Quebec skyline for almost three days after a train carrying Bakken crude oil crashed and burned, killing 47 people. The same trains roll through New Jersey every day — passing densely-populated towns. But New Jersey’s got a big, sophisticated foam firefighting system designed to smother crude oil fires.

“In respect to the rest of the nation, New Jersey has more foam on wheels than any other state,” said Elizabeth Fire Department Deputy Chief Carl Heitmeyer.

Heitmeyer showed us the Neptune system in Elizabeth. Tanker trucks deliver foam concentrate to the Neptune pumper, which draws water from a local river or bay and feeds the foam mixture into a high-pressure cannon.

“We can put water and foam to it and it can handle up to 8,000 gallons a minute. That’s more than half my swimming pool,” he said.

That’s one drawback — it needs so much water, that when Neptune deployed to fight the Seaside Heights boardwalk fire, firefighters ran hoses a mile down to the bay, to pressurize its pumper. New Jersey’s got $15 million worth of Neptune equipment ready to roll statewide. But it takes time to move and set up.

“Anywhere from two to four hours,” said Bergen County OEM Lt. Matt Tiedemann.

Tiedemann says local and county first responders need far more immediate help. A Bakken crude oil train disaster on the scale of Quebec’s could wipe out two Bergen County towns in a flash. Neptune’s just too slow, he says.

“So we need to have a plan as to what we’re gonna do for the first two to four hours, to make sure we can effectively save lives, rescue people, protect their homes, protect property, etc.,” he said.

Tiedemann says the oil’s mostly shipped in old, puncture-prone tanker cars. But when asked for oil train schedules, New Jersey’s State OEM said no — citing security issues.

“Everybody’s here to make money and if they tell you how much they’re shipping, at what time, that’s info that can go directly to a competitor,” said Tiedemann.

“This is a huge issue because the rail lines are running right along major waterways and are school systems and densely populated areas in the state,” said NY/NJ Baykeeper Sandra Meola.

But New Jersey’s acting fire marshal says when it arrives, the Neptune can handle a crude oil disaster.

“In our opinion, we’re probably the most prepared state in the country to deal with an incident that involves Bakken crude,” said New Jersey Division of Fire Safety Acting Director Bill Karmer.

Firefighters say they want railroads to use safer tank cars and pending federal regulations would require that safety upgrade. But as long as the price of gas continues to drop, high-grade Bakken crude will continue to ride the rails throughout New Jersey.