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Bomb Trains & Our Water: When 99% Isn’t Good Enough

by Johnny Burnham May 30, 2015

On April 30th, tankers on a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia. Oil spilled into the James River, causing the state capital of Richmond to switch drinking-water intakes to a backup supply. Hundreds of people had to be evacuated from their homes.

More times than not, a 99 percent success rate is commendable. But when it comes to trains carrying crude oil reaching their destination without incident, 99 times out of 100 isn’t good enough.

Now more than ever high-speed locomotives, a large majority coming down from Canada, are winding and weaving their way across the country carrying 50, 75, or even 100 cars or more filled with oil. Derailment of these trains leads to fiery explosions causing wreckage to the communities the accidents take place, contaminated soil, an undrinkable water supply, and more catastrophic than anything, fatalities.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is forecasting 207 derailments of these “bomb trains” over the next two decades. According to government studies, the transport of crude oil by rail has risen 400 percent in the last five years. The number of oil tanker spills in the United States last year alone was over 140 — a number that is five times the average for the past three decades.

Todd Paglia, executive director of ForestEthics, wrote that “in the first three months of 2015 four oil train accidents sent emergency responders scrambling, crude oil spilling into drinking water supplies, and fireballs blasting into the sky. The string of accidents in February and March demonstrate the severe threat from Bakken crude and Alberta tar sands moving on mile-long oil trains.”

The derailments come for several reasons, most notably the fact that aging railcars (DOT-111 cars) are still being used to haul the freight despite it being documented they lack basic safety mechanisms. However, these cars fit through a federal loophole as they are just small enough to technically not need additional safety equipment and certain emergency response plans.

This month new legislation has been formulated to try and address the growing problem. However, the dangerous DOT-111’s will not be taken off the tracks immediately but instead be phased out, putting communities like Fayette County, W. Va., who in February saw a 109-car train carrying fracked oil from North Dakota explode, at risk. Not only did several cars catch fire, at least one plunged into the Kanawha River, two houses were consumed by the blaze and two area towns were evacuated. The West Virginia Department of Health and Resources had to shut off the supply of water to residents.

“Allowing these outdated oil cars to continue rolling through our communities for another eight years is a reckless gamble that we can't afford to make. That is why I am introducing legislation that would fix these obvious shortcomings. For far too long, the rail and oil industries have taken advantage of the lack of rules by making excuse after excuse to delay phasing-out the dangerous and outdated tanker cars. While the DOT's announcement has finally forced the industry’s hands to update these rules, there is no question that the new rules don't go far enough,” U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “Letting these unsafe DOT-111s move the same extremely explosive oil we saw in the Lac Mègantic disaster for another eight years, is both careless and indefensible; and allowing the similarly dangerous unjacketed CPC-1232 cars to remain in service for another five to eight years is simply put, unfathomable.”

The American Association of Railroads recently said in a statement that it was “disappointed” and that there was “no substantial evidence” to support the new regulations.

In Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013, 47 died as 30 buildings were destroyed after a 74-car train carrying crude oil exploded; in February of last year, a derailment of a 19 cars carrying oil spilled in Western Pennsylvania; later that year a train towing 28,000 gallons of crude oil went off the rails outside of Denver in which six cars broke open along the banks of the South Platte River.

According to the water advocacy group Riverkeeper, as much as 7 billion gallons of crude oil moves by train through New York. It reports that there have been at least four oil train derailments in the Empire State, including three since November 2012.

Groups have protested outside the state capital in Albany, demanding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo ban “bomb trains.”

“At this rate the people of New York cannot wait another month, let alone years. There will always be human error and mechanical failures. There will always be train derailments,” Sandy Steubing of PAUSE (People of Albany for Safe Energy) said. “However, there can be no margin for error with a substance that is this volatile.”

Two trains carrying 3 million gallons of crude oil travel down the Hudson River Valley daily. The Cuomo administration says it has coordinated with the Federal Railroad Administration on targeted crude oil tank car and rail inspections, inspecting 9,359 rail cars and 3,012 miles of track since February 2014.

“New York has taken a proactive role under our administration when it comes to inspecting rail cars and rail facilities within our state’s borders, but the fundamental responsibility for the safe transportation of crude oil across the country continues to reside with federal agencies,” Cuomo said. “These stronger regulations are a step in the right direction, and we will continue to work alongside our federal partners to prevent crude oil disasters and ensure the safety of our communities.”

It appears most are in agreement that the problem needs to be addressed, but the question remains — is it already too late?

“The truth is that 99.9 percent of these shipments reach their destination safely,” DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said earlier this month. “The accidents involving crude and ethanol that have occurred, though, have shown us that 99.9 percent isn’t enough.”

Johnny Burnham
Johnny Burnham


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