FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Oil Trains: Unsafe (and Unnecessary) at Any Speed

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.

More articles by:

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

January 21, 2019
W. T. Whitney
New US Economic Attack Against Cuba, Long Threatened, May Hit Soon
Jérôme Duval
Macronist Repression Against the People in Yellow Vests
Dean Baker
The Next Recession: What It Could Look Like
Eric Mann
All Hail the Revolutionary King: Martin Luther King and the Black Revolutionary Tradition
Binoy Kampmark
Spy Theories and the White House: Donald Trump as Russian Agent
Edward Curtin
We Need a Martin Luther King Day of Truth
Bill Fried
Jeff Sessions and the Federalists
Ed Corcoran
Central America Needs a Marshall Plan
Colin Todhunter
Complaint Lodged with European Ombudsman: Regulatory Authorities Colluding with Agrochemicals Industry
Manuel E. Yepe
The US War Against the Weak
Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
Victor Grossman
Red Flowers for Rosa and Karl
Cesar Chelala
President Donald Trump’s “Magical Realism”
Christopher Brauchli
An Education in Fraud
Paul Bentley
The Death Penalty for Canada’s Foreign Policy?
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Not to Love NATO
Louis Proyect
Breaking the Left’s Gay Taboo
Kani Xulam
A Saudi Teen and Freedom’s Shining Moment
Ralph Nader
Bar Barr or Regret this Dictatorial Attorney General
Jessicah Pierre
A Dream Deferred: MLK’s Dream of Economic Justice is Far From Reality
Edward J. Martin
Glossip v. Gross, the Eighth Amendment and the Torture Court of the United States
Chuck Collins
Shutdown Expands the Ranks of the “Underwater Nation”
Paul Edwards
War Whores
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail