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Officials say railroad safe way to ship propane

Tanker car safety measure made after Kingman, Ariz. incident
By: Stephanie Dumm, News Messenger Reporter
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Changes made to train tanker cars that transport hazardous materials may have prevented a catastrophic explosion during last week’s train tanker fire. So said Chuck Osterman, the city of Kingman, Ariz.’s fire chief. He said changes to both tank design and firefighting tactics were made following the explosion of a train tanker containing propane on July 5, 1973 in Kingman. On that day in Kingman, two workers were getting ready to offload the tankers into a storage tank, when a propane leak occurred. The two workers tried to tighten the leak, according to Osterman. “The best we can believe that happened is they were not using the non-sparking wrenches,” Osterman said. “It continued to leak and burn, which heated the car, and the valve activated like it should.” A BLEVE (boiling liquid expansive vapor explosion) then occurred, killing 11 firefighters and one of the men who had been working on the tank, according to Osterman. He said “a lot has transpired” since then in the way of tanker safety. “Government and industry did testing on tank cars, BLEVE’d them and saw what they could do to better design the tank cars, which I’m sure was a great benefit to the situation in Lincoln,” Osterman said. “They are double-walled now, to help absorb any flame impingement, and re-valved. They beefed up the bulkheads in front and in the rear.” The double-walling of the tanker cars is helpful to firefighters, according to Osterman. He said the National Fire Protection Association did a case study following the Kingman incident “so other fire departments throughout the world and country could learn from that.” “One of the reasons they did the double-wall and other changes is to allow more time to apply large volumes of water to cool the shell so it doesn’t rupture,” Osterman said. Aaron Hunt, a Union Pacific spokesman, told The News Messenger Monday that transporting hazardous materials such as propane is “very safe.” “Trains are a very safe way to ship freight of all different kinds,” Hunt said. The Lincoln propane tank that caught fire on Aug. 23 was dropped off at the downtown Nicolaus Road propane storage company, Northern Energy Propane, by Union Pacific on Aug. 21. “From that point on, Heritage had the tank cars in their possession,” Hunt said. “We don’t own the tank cars that were delivered and we don’t own the product that was in the tanks. The product had been purchased by Northern Energy.” Heritage Propane owns Northern Energy Propane. The shipment of hazardous materials, such as propane, is safe due to a few different reasons, according to Hunt. “This year, Union Pacific is investing $3.3 billion in its own infrastructure for maintenance,” Hunt said. “That means we are going to spend that private money on enhancing our track structure, replacing railroad ties and ballasts, so we can minimize any kind of incidents with trains.” Hunt said another reason was “security audits” that Union Pacific performs. “These are ongoing, we also fund a number of different training initiatives for the train crews,” Hunt said. “We take safety very seriously. It is an everyday focus for us.”