Back in mid-January, 14 rail cars toting Bakken crude were pulled from a single train at three separate stops in Washington state after workers discovered leaky top-valves had spilled a combined 25 gallons of oil during transit. Another tank car arrived at BP's refinery in Cherry Point, Wash., two months prior more than 1,600 gallons lighter than when it had started. State and federal officials have offered scant details during the subsequent investigations, leaving folks throughout the region wondering: Where'd all that crude go?
One place we can rule out is Missoula. According to Montana Rail Link, the trains in question weren't traveling along its lines but rather those of BNSF. That narrows the field down to Montana's Hi-Line, the Idaho Panhandle and the bulk of Washington—in other words, scores of small rural communities and along the southern boundary of Glacier National Park.
The leaks, combined with the month it took BNSF to report the first incident to federal agencies, have fueled strong criticism from state lawmakers in Washington. Yet the railway insists damage was minimal and that it's paying close attention to the increased volume of oil trains in the region.
"Trust me," said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas in Seattle. "All eyes are on these movements."
Melonas added the leaks were "minute" and BNSF found "no visible concentrations" of oil along its routes. He attributed the problem to "valve-fitting issues," deferring additional questions to the Federal Railroad Administration, which is heading the investigation and expects to release an extensive report this month.
That FRA document may shed light on where 1,600-plus gallons of Bakken crude ended up, but the rash of leaks touch on a much broader concern. Each of the tank cars involved were higher-standard CPC-1232 models meant to reduce the potential dangers associated with older, more puncture-prone cars. Despite the stricter safety specifications issued by the Association of American Railroads in October 2011, the amount of oil spilled from trains nationwide hit a record high in 2014. Fiery derailments like those in Illinois and Ontario just last week continue to dominate headlines from coast to coast.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to issue stricter rules sometime this year, but those rules are reportedly months behind schedule already. No surprise there. Trackside fires burn and communities clamor for tighter regulations, yet it takes half a year and a whole lot of double-talk just to tell us where 1,600 gallons of oil wound up.