BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Balancing nature with big industry has created controversy in Louisiana for years. This century's Bakken Oil Boom in North Dakota has brought another potential danger to our state to go along with the prosperity it brings.
In the past two years, 10 disasters involving trains carrying the volatile Bakken crude has forced safety regulators to rush better safety standards. However, the changes can't be made overnight or without great cost, and that naturally worries safety consultants and local city leaders.
Louisiana has the greatest concentration of oil, gas and petrochemical production facilities in the Western Hemisphere.
"We have the potential here for mass casualties with a giant fire event," warns Fred Millar, an independent rail safety consultant.
Those worst fears are what happened in July 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. 47 people perished and the downtown of that quaint village was destroyed when a train carrying tankers full of crude derailed and exploded.
So, how much Bakken Crude extracted from North Dakota's rich Bakken Formation routinely rolls close to home? Records obtained by the 9News Investigators revealed a spot check of Union Pacific trains this past December and January.
In Rapides, Avoyelles, Pointe Coupee and West Baton Rouge parishes, trains with 35 or more carloads, carrying at least one million gallons of crude, were expected 5 to 10 times each week in a two week period. In another week of January, 8 to 9 trains of 35 plus cars were expected in St. Landry, Pointe Coupee, Iberville, Ascension and St. James parishes also hauling one or more million gallons.
It's enough to keep Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden up at night.
"What happens if you have a convention here? How do you deal with all those people, evacuations and all of that?" asked Holden.
Across the river, West Baton Rouge Parish President Riley 'Pee Wee' Berthelot is already taking steps if disaster strikes. He's having roads built in towns like Addis where pathways out are few.
Even though records show more than 99 percent of rail shipments reach destinations safely, that is still overshadowed by the relatively few catastrophes.
Billy Poe, of the Baton Rouge-based Explosive Services International, is one of the world's leading experts in the cleanup of fiery train derailments. He told the 9News Investigators, "As long as trains carry dangerous crude oil, disasters will happen."
"Get the pipeline approved and built, and you won't have all this on the railroads," said Poe.
In the meantime, lower speed limits will be enforced, and tanker cars will be upgraded and rebuilt in an effort to lower the risk of disaster on the rails.