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Stopping West Coast Tar Sands Oil Bomb Trains in Their Tracks

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On February 4th and 5th, San Luis Obispo County will be deciding on a Phillips 66 plan to bring mile-long oil tanker trains into their Nipomo Mesa plant five days a week, each carrying 2.4 million gallons of toxic and volatile petroleum across California. So, why should the rest of us care?

Well, the Delta 5 gave us one reason, protestors in Washington state who tied themselves to a 25-foot tripod to block a train carrying crude oil. Stopping these shipments of some of the dirtiest crude oil on earth from fouling our climate even further. But for the average person who isn’t blocking fossil fuel infrastructure, there is an even greater imperative: bomb trains.

Five times around North America in 2015 oil trains crashed causing massive explosions, spills of caustic crude into rivers, fires that burn out of control, and significant property damage. The list is daunting: May 2015 in Heimdal, North Dakota, six cars of a 109-car train exploded into flames with 60,000 gallons of oil spilled. In March, an oil train derailed near Gogoma, Ontario, with a fire that destroyed a bridge. This only 23 miles from a February oil train accident where the fire burned for days. Evacuations and extreme explosions have become a game of Russian roulette, and first responders can only wonder where is next?

“The February 2014 crash in North Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, [attributed to a failure in newly-laid rails] fits into an alarming pattern across North America that helps explain the significant rise of derailments involving oil-hauling trains over the last three years, even as railroads are investing billions of dollars in improving the safety of their networks. A review of 31 crashes that have occurred on oil trains since 2013 puts track failure at the heart of the growing safety problem.”  — Los Angeles Times

In March of 2015, near Galena, Illinois, 21 cars of a 105-car oil train derailed and burst into flames. And in February, a 109-car CSX oil train derailed and caught fire near Mount Carbon, West Virginia, leaking oil into the Kanawha River tributary, with a fire that burned for most of a week. In all of these accidents the tankers were retrofitted with protective shields to meet a higher safety standard than federal law requires, meaning the biggest problem in a world of problems was the flammable fracked oil shale or tar sands crude involved. Four more accidents happened in Tennessee, Montana and Wisconsin in 2015 where significant oil, fuel or corrosive chemicals were spilled, but without a major explosion.

The worst oil train accident by far happened July 5, 2013, with an unattended runaway train carrying fracked North Dakota Bakken shale oil, derailing and catching fire in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Forty-seven people were killed and thirty buildings burned. About 1.6 million gallons of oil was spilled. Several things are clear here: the rail tanker cars, emergency response plans, braking equipment requirements, and railroad track maintenance are inadequate. And we must find cleaner, safer alternatives to these ecosystem-fouling, climate-disrupting extreme fossil fuels like tar sands and fracked oil shale.

Blast Zone Running Through Our Cities and Towns

The proposal includes 80-car trains, up to 1 ½ miles long, that leak their contents into the air, toxic sulfur dioxide and cancer-causing chemicals that increase health risks of heart and respiratory disease. The proposed rail route would bring oil trains through the environmentally-sensitive state water resource San Francisco Bay Delta and along California’s Central Coast.

Volatile and toxic crude would also begin moving through Los Angeles between the Inland Empire and Downtown Los Angeles, along a stretch of the L.A. River, a source of water and recreation undergoing a $1.3 billion makeover, passing homes, hospitals, and parks, through downtown where hipster apartments and sparkling office-and-shopping megaplexes are sprouting up. The trains would further pass through the Chatsworth/Northridge area already facing the largest fossil fuel gas leak blowout since the BP Deepwater Horizon. Responding to pressure from activists, the Los Angeles City Council passed a unanimous resolution last September to oppose this project. They were not alone: six counties and 21 cities passed similar motions asking SLO to reject the project.

The entire route would put at risk more than 5 million people statewide within a one-mile evacuation area, called the Blast Zone.

A recent analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity found that 500,000 students in California attend schools within a half-mile of rail tracks used by oil trains, and more than another 500,000 are within a mile of the Blast Zone. In addition to the threat posed to California’s students, the report Crude Injustice on the Rails released last year by ForestEthics and Communities for a Better Environment, pointed out that in California the communities within the half-mile blast zones were also more likely to be low-income minority neighborhoods. The cost of our oil addiction already disproportionately impacts these communities with toxic air quality, asthma and other maladies, noise, and the threat of accidents. Time for an intervention to heal this debilitating addiction now. 

We Have Alternatives

We must reject regular bomb train accidents as a cost of business as usual in our fast-paced, technology-addled world. We can continue to retrofit our cities and towns to provide alternatives to gridlocked freeways, with accessible public transit, car-sharing and autonomous (self-driving) technologies, free-flowing bicycle throughways, and walkable neighborhoods. We can invest in the development of more efficient automobiles made of fiber composites, powered by solar and wind power or advanced biofuels.

Rather than sacrifice our railroads built for passengers and light cargo, not 100-car bomb trains bent on destabilizing our climate in the name of getting to work on time, we can look to the work of the visionaries, Mark Z. Jacobsen’s Solutions Project, Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute, and Arjun Makhijani’s Carbon Free, Nuclear Free.

We can and will transition to an economy focused on efficiency, conservation, and renewable and clean sources of energy, but it has to happen now. And we must overcome the excesses of capitalism, where politicians like Mr. Obama and Mr. Brown, who spout concepts of energy sustainability can be bought with the power of dark money to push for more pipelines, oil trains, hydraulic fracking wells, holding fast to the addiction.

Presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein have the ability to separate themselves from the oil lobby billions: the rest of them, not so much. Sacrifice zones like Porter Ranch and Wilmington, along with extreme droughts and superstorms, as well as cancer-clusters and death by explosions, don’t have to be the cost of “doing business.”

Instead of bringing tar sands crude from the strip-mined boreal forests of Alberta, the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery should transition their workers into providing sustainable energy for the 21st Century. Our communities and our planet demand a world with clean air and water, safe from exploding bomb trains.

Jack Eidt is publisher of WilderUtopia, and serves on the Steering Committee of SoCal 350 Climate Action, a Los Angeles affiliate of the international climate change organization 350.org.

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