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First responders concerned about possible oil train derailment in St. Louis

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ST. LOUIS (KTVI) –St. Louis` Fire Chief says our region is not prepared for an oil train derailment and that it could wipe out an entire neighborhood.

'It`s a moving pipeline,' Mechelle Minden said. Minden is a member of the group called St. Louis for Safe Trains. Minden added that the pipeline is 'along these rails and it`s going through neighborhoods all across the city and state.'

Minden lives in Holly Hills. She said, 'It`s a life or death issue. If one of these trains were to derail, we would all be gone.'

After the oil train derailment and explosion in Quebec, Canada, the St. Louis Fire Department created a map to show what it would look like in Holly Hills, showing a similar explosion could destroy hundreds of homes.

Minden added, 'Almost the entire half of Holly Hills would be gone, including a school that`s just a couple blocks away from us right here.'

St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson said, 'That wasn`t an exaggeration at all. I was involved with the development of that what the fallout would be.'

Jenkerson says his men and women could not handle it. He said, 'One tanker we can handle, but you start looking at 100 of them coming through this neighborhood where I`ve got 75-80,000 people? I`ve got a problem.'

Hours after our interview, it appeared nearly 100 oil train cars rolled through downtown St. Louis, right past Busch Stadium, along the interstate and under the Arch Grounds. They appear to be returning north to get more oil. Jenkerson said, 'They are residual cars, which means they can have ten percent of product in that car. So a 30,000 gallon tanker has 3,000 gallons of product probably left in there. Problem. You`ve got vapors and with vapors coming off that new product, there`s a big issue there. They`re all flammable.'

He says it`s part of the new oil boom out of the Bakken Formation in North Dakota. Chief Jenkerson says Bakken oil is being fracked faster than anyone can prepare for. He said, 'It`s a different animal. It`s shipped under the crude oil DOT regulation but it`s not. It`s a younger oil. It`s a sweet oil. They call it a sweet crude. It`s got high ends, which contains 10 times the amount of propane, butane, pentane, hexane, highly volatile products.'

Through St. Louis, the Terminal Railroad Association inspects the tracks constantly, sometimes using x-ray technology that can detect problems inside the steel. Special train cars look for erosion and possible rail problems. Inspectors examine bridges to make sure all the bolts are working and there`s no cracks in the steel.'

Terminal Railroad Chief Engineer Eric Fields said they`re looking at big structures like the downtown MacArthur bridge almost daily. Fields said, 'Steel repair is a huge part of what we do. The MacArthur Bridge is the second longest bridge over the Mississippi River and has a lot of structural steel. We do steel repairs constantly.'

Before our interview, we walked underneath finding lots of corrosion. One item seemed to stand out. It was a ground support with so much corrosion that it appeared the walls of the support were bending in.

We sent pictures to Terminal Railroad. About a week later, they showed us a repair. Fields said inspectors identified it long ago and they were watching it. He said, 'It was a concern that came up on an audit finding. We have a lot of bridge to maintain and we rank and prioritize it but it fell into an intermediate category of repair and it was repaired within I think three or four years since it was first audited.'

Jenkerson added, 'Historically the railroads have been fairly safe.' He said they have a great track record, but added that there`s a reason we`ve seen nearly ten oil related derailments since the explosion in Quebec two years ago. Accidents happen.

Jenkerson said, 'We need product. We need foam. You know should something happen, this is what I`m going to need. We`ve got enough foam to put out a tanker car or two. So we`ve been working with them trying to get some of their products here so we can keep them on site in the region.'

A Union Pacific spokesman said the railroad does have some foam here in St. Louis and a larger amount nearby. He added that they a hazardous materials material manager and air monitoring equipment here too.

The Federal Government has also mandated safer train cars, such as cars with thicker walls and better braking. The railroads say they've already been paying for improvements. The Association of American Railroads told me the railroads have spent more than half a trillion dollars in upgrades in the last three decades.