Coal-Train Derailments and Record-High Temperatures. Related?

In the past 2 weeks, there were 4 different coal train derailments in the United States. On Wednesday, June 27 a Union Pacific coal train derailed near Junction City, in northeastern Kansas, overturning or crushing 23 rail cars.  The train was en route to Memphis from a mine in Colorado, according to this report.

On Monday, July 2, a BNSF Railway Co. coal train originating from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming headed for British Columbia derailed near Mesa, Washington, sending 31 train cars full of coal tumbling across an interstate railroad thoroughfare.

On Wednesday, July 4 in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, another train derailed, sending 28 coal cars off the tracks, causing an 86-foot long railway bridge to collapse onto a passenger vehicle, killing 2 people. According to this report from the Chicago Tribune, this train was en route to a utility plant in Wisconsin from a coal mine in eastern Wyoming.

Later that evening, yet another coal train derailment occurred in Pendelton, Texas — this time sending 43 BNSF cars flying off the tracks and causing hundreds of tons of coal to be strewn everywhere. This quote from the Temple Daily Telegram is pretty powerful:  “What people see in the sky that looks like smoke is actually coal dust” – Trooper Shawn Andersen, TX Department of Public Safety. Think coal dust isn’t a big problem? Think again.

What the heck is going on? What’s causing these derailments? Is it the record high temperatures?

Below is a list of the temperatures for each location on the day when each derailment occurred thanks to

6/27 Junction City, Kansas 107º F
7/2  Mesa, Washington 90º F
7/4 Pendleton, Texas 97º F
7/4 Northbrook, Illinois 103º F

In this July, 2010 article from PBS Newshour, multiple days of high temps can cause ‘heat kinks’, spots where the tracks get so hot they expand into wave-like shapes. According to this blog from St. Louis’ KMOV, areas on tracks that expand from the heat are referred to as ‘sun kinks’. Call them what you want to call them. These kinks, when left unchecked, can result in derailments. That’s what possibly happened just this past weekend in Washington, DC to the Metro Green Line from Greenbelt, Maryland into the District. This passenger train derailment happened at 4:45 on Friday July 6, prime rush hour. Luckily, there were no injuries, because when there is extreme heat, the Metro DC trains operate under heat restrictions that limit their speed. These restrictions cause delays and inconveniences for some passengers, but slower train travel means less chance of accident. Were there any heat advisories in place in those towns that might have prevented those coal trains from derailing?

SkyTruth intern Yolandita blogged about visualizing local impacts of coal exports to Asia, using all sorts of Google tools, and the finished product [video] was quite an eye-opener for many readers. The daily average would have 930,000 tons of coal being transported every day from Wyoming to Washington. That’s 60 coal trains per day.  And in just the past two weeks we’ve had 4 coal train derailments. Tita’s work shows what a 137-car coal train will look like passing through small towns. Most of the time these massive trains get from point A to point B with little or no trouble. But as we’ve seen this month, sometimes they don’t:

Train derailment in Mesa, Wahington –  July 2, 2012
Photo courtesy of Tony Eveland/Tri-County Herald


Visualizing Elevation Change: Mountaintop Removal Mining

Here at SkyTruth, we are always looking for new ways to visualize the environmental impact of human activity, so we’ve been playing with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data and digital elevation models (DEMs). We thought it would be interesting, and potentially useful, to create a profile of the terrain of a mine before and after mining activity.  I’ve started with the controversial Spruce No.1 mountaintop removal coal mine in Logan County, West Virginia as my test subject.

Topography of the Spruce No.1 mine in Logan County, WV, in 2010.

Google Earth imagery showed that significant mining activity had occurred between 2003 and 2011.  I retrieved a digital elevation model (DEM) of the mine location that shows what the topography looked like  in 2003, from the WV GIS Technical Center.  This elevation dataset was created from aerial survey photography that was flown in 2003.  I then downloaded LiDAR data that was collected over the area in 2010 from WV View and converted the LiDAR to a DEM using ArcGIS.  Next, I calculated the difference in elevation between the two DEMs; in other words, the change in elevation over that 7-year period.

In the slide show below, I have provided hill shades of the DEMs to better visualize the difference. I color coded the areas affected by mountaintop removal (blue) and the areas affected by valley fill (yellow) and overlaid the color coded DEM over the hill shades of the mine in 2003 and 2010. I have also created a profile graph of the elevation along two cross sections before and after mining activity. After analyzing all these results, I have found that 7.4 million cubic meters of rock was removed by way of mountain top removal mining and 9.8 million cubic meters of rock has filled what once was a valley.  (Why the difference?  The fill has a lot of gaps and spaces, so it’s not as compact as the original, mined bedrock.)

Colorado – Operational Oil and Gas Wells

The Pine Ridge fire prompted me to download the latest oil and gas well information from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (think about that name for a sec…).  I filtered it based on the well status codes to include only those wells that could be considered currently in operation. Then I plugged the data into Google Earth Pro.  Good times!  Here’s a series of statewide overviews showing the results.  Click for bigger versions.

Status Code PR = “Producing.”  These wells are currently producing commercial quantities of oil and/or gas into the pipeline network.  The main event.  43,383 wells:

“Producing” wells (43,383) in Colorado as of June 29, 2012.

More maps and numbers after the break….

Status Code SI = “Shut In.”  The next biggest category, these are wells that have had production temporarily stopped. This is done for maintenance or repairs, or to limit gas supplies to prop up gas prices (natural gas prices are currently very low).  2,060 wells:

“Shut In” wells (2,060) in Colorado as of June 29, 2012.

Status Code IJ  = “Injecting.”  These are wells that inject wastewater into the ground for disposal.  Wastewater can include flowback from fracking operations, produced liquids (brine) that come up with the oil and gas, and drilling fluids. A recent investigative journalism article described some of the problems and uncertainties associated with wastewater injection.  677 wells:

“Injecting” wells (677) in Colorado as of June 29, 2012.

Status Code TA = “Temporarily Abandoned.”  These wells are out of production and are waiting to be permanently plugged and abandoned.  An AP investigative report examined the risks of improperly abandoned wells, and of wells that are allowed by state regulators to linger for years as “temporarily abandoned” without being properly plugged. 552 wells:

“Temporarily Abandoned” wells (552) in Colorado as of June 29, 2012.

Status Code WO = “Waiting On Completion.” Wells that have been drilled, but not yet put into production.  Various completion operations (possibly including hydraulic fracturing, or fracking) have yet to performed.  470 wells:

“Waiting On Completion” wells (470) in Colorado as of June 29, 2012.

Status Code DG = “Drilling.”  Wells that are currently being drilled.  Not yet completed, not yet in production.  Drill crews and other workers are probably on site.  346 wells:

“Drilling” wells (346) in Colorado as of June 29, 2012.

Status Code AC = “Active.”  We have no idea what this means. Anybody know?  We’ll take it at face value though.  249 wells:

“Active” wells (249) in Colorado as of June 29, 2012.

Here’s the whole shootin’ match.  All of the wells from the above categories that we deem to be currently operational oil and gas wells in the great state of Colorado.   47,737 wells:

All operational wells (47,737) in Colorado as of June 29, 2012.

Pine Ridge Fire, CO and Natural Gas Drilling

The Pine Ridge fire in western Colorado near De Beque grew rapidly since our post last week, but responders report that they’ve got it 65% contained today.  Some rare good news during this fierce fire season out West.  Drought, poor snowpack, shorter winters, warmer temperatures and widespread tree die-off due to insect infestations are creating conditions that suggest wildfires in the Rockies will be getting bigger, meaner and more frequent in the years ahead.

In the meantime, we’ve got wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming burning in close proximity to natural-gas wells, pipelines and other infrastructure.  I’ve gotten a couple of comments assuring me that this hardware is designed to withstand wildfires.  Sure, but deepwater oil wells are also designed to withstand blowouts.  Anything built and maintained by us humans is bound to be less than perfect.  Thankfully I haven’t heard yet of any wildfire-related problems, but the simple fact that natural-gas infrastructure is know to be “leaky” probably makes it riskier to deal with wildfire in a gas field.  For the Pine Ridge fire, operators have shut in their gas wells (temporarily suspending production), apparently at the behest of federal land managers at the BLM.

This fire spurred me to get the latest information on the extent of the burned area and the locations of active gas and oil wells.  Well locations are indicated by colored dots.  The red line shows the extent of burned area from the Pine Ridge fire as of July 2.  Backdrop is the default high-resolution aerial survey photography in Google Earth:

Map showing locations of active gas and oil wells (colored dots) and extent of burned area from Pine Ridge fire (red line) as of July 2, 2012.