Massive oil trains carry potentially explosive cargo right through your hometown.
"We wouldn't have a chance if it happened here in Hayti," Frances Hicks said as she looked over to the tracks from the funeral home where she works.
The Heartland News I-Team has joined with Raycom sister stations in a nationwide investigation into oil cargoes that are so dangerous many call them “bomb trains.”
In July 2013, an oil train derailment and huge explosion leveled a small town in Quebec, killing 47 people.
Just five months later, another oil train derailed in North Dakota and exploded. It spilled 400,000 gallons of highly flammable sweet crude oil.
This disaster could have easily happened in the Heartland as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe train was headed for the Marquis oil terminal in Hayti, Missouri.
"There's usually 95 to 100, or a little over 100 at one time,” Hicks said of the oil trains she sees.
She fears what will happen if, like in so many other communities, one or more of those tanks derails.
"We're talking something catastrophic," Hicks said.
It happened again in Heimdal, North Dakota on May 6, 2015. An oil train derailment caused several cars to burst into flames. The tiny town was evacuated.
"What would we do if this happened here, you think?" I asked Cooper.
"Oh man, we gonna have to evacuate,” Robert Cooper of Steele said. “We'll have to get up out of here cuz these towns, little old like this Hayti here, you know these little old towns, if something like that happened we through."
"When those oil cars came to Hayti, that was when we really had to get serious about doing something," Hayti Fire Chief Glen Whitener said.
Chief Whitener knows all about the oil that arrives by rail at the Marquis terminal outside of town. He explains why it's so dangerous.
"The oil, the sweet crude that comes out of Bakken oil reserves up there in the Dakotas, it generates a pressure when it's transported,” he explained. “And so these cars have 15-20 pounds of pressure on them. When that car ruptures, the pressure on there pushes the product out and creates a very spectacular fire."
"Are all the cars that come down here, do they all have that particular kind of oil in them?" I asked.
"Yes. All the oil that comes this way, as far as I know, is the sweet crude," Whitener said.
And what's even scarier is no one really knows when these trains are coming or exactly where they travel. The U.S. Department of Transportation won't make that public.
Based on research done by safety groups that track oil train incidents, the massive 118 car trains leave North Dakota and head south. After passing through the terminal in St. Louis, they travel through southeast Missouri north of Perryville, right along the river wall in downtown Cape Girardeau, and along the tracks on the west side of Sikeston.
"It's my understanding from the information I have that they come through town every 36 hours," said Sikeston Department of Public Safety Chief Drew Juden.
Juden is stockpiling the equipment and getting his guys the training needed to tackle an oil train disaster, whether it's in Sikeston, or anywhere along the tracks in the region.
"If we don't have the water capability from the community and we're out in the rural areas, it's a big challenge." Juden said. "We have the water capability in the community, but that's where we have our population."
Back in Hayti, Chief Whitener says the Bakken sweet crude the trains carry to Marquis is a very thin liquid, about the consistency of kerosene. It's pumped through underground pipes onto waiting barges.
"So, it's not thick crude," Whitener said. "It's very thin. And it flows very easily."
Even though Marquis and Burlington Northern would not speak about the oil trains, Chief Whitener calls them both good corporate partners.
They've paid for foam used to put out the flames, equipment to spread it, and training on how to use it.
Hayti Mayor Bobby Watkins says his small community is ready to make a big investment of $90,000 in new equipment.
"This is the brush truck that we're looking at right now. So we're going to receive this,” Watkins said as he looked at a picture of the new equipment. “We've got a grant in place already to be able to receive some money for that along with this and some other additional equipment to go along with this as well."
He says the foam trailer will help with response while helping to keep emergency crews safe.
"The foam trailer, basically it's going to be something that they will be able to, they'll be able to park this closer to the fire without having the firemen themselves be in harm's way as often," Watkins said.
"In three months, four months, whenever we get these other apparatus in here, we'll be in a much better prepared situation,” Chief Whitener said. “And I'll feel better about Hayti and our situation here."
Chief Whitener says he has enough foam and equipment to fight just one oil tank car on fire. Any more than that, and he'd have to let them burn.
In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced new guidelines for oil trains, including sturdier cars to prevent ruptures. But, those don't start taking effect for another two years.
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