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Oil Trains: Unsafe (and Unnecessary) at Any Speed

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Back in 1991 the National Transportation Safety Board first identified oil trains as unsafe — the tank cars, specifically ones called DOT-111s, were too thin and punctured too easily, making transport of flammable liquids like oil unreasonably dangerous. As bad as this might sound, at the very least there was not a lot of oil being carried on the rails in 1991.

Now, in the midst of a North American oil boom, oil companies are using fracking and tar sands mining to produce crude in remote areas of the U.S. and Canada. To get the crude to refineries on the coasts the oil industry is ramping up transport by oil trains. In 2008, 9,500 crude oil tank cars moved on US rails. In 2013 the number was more than 400,000! With this rapid growth comes a looming threat to public safety and the environment. No one — not federal regulators or local firefighters — are prepared for oil train derailments, spills and explosions.

Unfortunately, the rapid increase in oil trains has already meant many more oil train disasters. Railroads spilled more oil in 2013 than in the previous 40 years combined.

Trains are the most efficient way to move freight and people. This is why train tracks run through our cities and towns. Our rail system was never designed to move hazardous materials, however; if it was, train tracks would not run next to schools and under football stadiums.

Last summer, environmental watchdog group ForestEthics released a map of North America that shows probable oil train routes. Using Google, anyone can check to see if their home or office is near an oil train route. (Try it out here.)

ForestEthics used census data to calculate that more than 25 million Americans live in the oil train blast zone (that being the one-mile evacuation area in the case of a derailment and fire.) This is clearly a risk not worth taking — oil trains are the Pintos of the rails. Most of these trains are a mile long, pulling 100-plus tank cars carrying more than 3 million gallons of explosive crude. Two-thirds of the tank cars used to carry crude oil today were considered a “substantial danger to life, property, and the environment” by federal rail safety officials back in 1991.

The remaining one-third of the tank cars are not much better — these more “modern” cars are tested at 14 to 15 mph, but the average derailment speed for heavy freight trains is 24 mph. And it was the most “modern” tank cars that infamously derailed, caught fire, exploded and poisoned the river in Lynchburg, West Virginia, last May. Other derailments and explosions in North Dakota and Alabama made national news in 2014.

The most alarming demonstration of the threat posed by these trains happened in Quebec in July 2013 — an oil train derailed and exploded in the City of Lac Megantic, killing 47 people and burning a quarter of the city to the ground. The fire burned uncontrollably, flowing through the city, into and then out of sewers, and into the nearby river. Firefighters from across the region responded, but an oil fire cannot be fought with water, and exceptionally few fire departments have enough foam flame retardant to control a fire from even a single 30,000 gallon tank car, much less the millions of gallons on an oil train.

Given the damage already done and the threat presented, Canada immediately banned the oldest of these rail cars and mandated a three-year phase-out of the DOT-111s. More needs to be done, but this is a solid first step. Of course, we share the North American rail network — right now those banned trains from Canada may very well be transporting oil through your home town while the Department of Transportation dallies.

The immense public risk these oil trains pose is starting to gain the attention it deserves, but not yet the response. Last summer, the U.S. federal government began the process of writing new safety regulations. Industry has weighed in heavily to protect its interest in keeping these trains rolling. The Department of Transportation, disturbingly, seems to be catering to industry’s needs.

The current draft rules are deeply flawed and would have little positive impact on safety. They leave the most dangerous cars in service for years. Worse yet, the oil industry would get to more than double its tank car fleet before being required to decommission any of the older, more dangerous DOT-111s.

We need an immediate ban on the most dangerous tank cars. We also need to slow these trains down; slower trains mean fewer accidents, and fewer spills and explosions when they do derail. The public and local fire fighters must be notified about train routes and schedules, and every oil train needs a comprehensive emergency response plan for accidents involving explosive Bakken crude and toxic tar sands. In addition, regulations must require adequate insurance. This is the least we could expect from Secretary Anthony Foxx, who travels a lot around the country, and the Department of Transportation.

So far, Secretary Foxx is protecting the oil industry, not ordinary Americans. In fact, Secretary Foxx is meeting with Canadian officials this Thursday, December 18, to discuss oil-by-rail. It is doubtful, considering Canada’s strong first step, that he will be trying to persuade them to adopt even stronger regulations. Will Secretary Foxx ask them to weaken what they have done and put more lives at risk? Time will tell. He has the power, and the mandate, to remove the most dangerous rail cars to protect public safety but he appears to be heading in the opposite direction. Earlier this month ForestEthics and the Sierra Club, represented by EarthJustice, filed a lawsuit against the DOT to require them to fulfill this duty.

Secretary Foxx no doubt has a parade of corporate executives wooing him for lax or no oversight. But he certainly doesn’t want to have a Lac Megantic-type disaster in the U.S. on his watch. It is more possible now than ever before, given the massive increase in oil-by-rail traffic.

Pipelines, such as the Keystone XL, are not the answer either. (Keystone oil would be routed for export to other countries from Gulf ports.) Pipelines can also leak and result in massive damage to the environment as we have seen in the Kalamazoo, MI spill by the Enbridge Corporation. Three years later, $1.2 billion spent, and the “clean up” is still ongoing.

Here’s the reality — we don’t need new pipelines and we don’t need oil by rail. This is “extreme oil,” and if we can’t transport it safely, we can and must say no. Secretary Foxx needs to help make sure 25 million people living in the blastzone are safe and that means significant regulations and restrictions on potentially catastrophic oil rail cars.

Rather than choosing either of these destructive options, we are fortunate to be able to choose safe, affordable cleaner energy and more efficient energy products, such as vehicles and furnaces, instead. That is the future and it is not a distant future — it’s happening right now.

Ralph Nader’s latest book is: Unstoppable: the Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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