Nel's New Day

May 10, 2014

The Danger of Oil Trains on National Train Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 9:49 PM
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The First Transcontinental Railroad connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads was officially completed 145 years ago when Leland Stanford drove in the “Golden Spike” used for the ceremonial completion. That’s why Amtrak, in its promotion of trains, picked the Saturday closest to May 10 as National Train Day. The company’s goal was to get more people to travel on trains.

When I think of trains, however, I think of the oil trains that endanger people’s lives and cut down on access to food across the country because they hog the rails. Crude oil shipped by rail through the United States has accelerated over 40 times from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 last year. A study of 86 crude oils throughout the world shows that the oil from the Bakken area is far more combustible than other oils. The oil freight cars date back to the 1960s when they usually carried payloads like corn syrup. Now the oil is shipped along aging freight infrastructure through cities. Even ethanol rail traffic increased 442 percent between 2005 and 2010.

lynchburg oil train

The most recent oil train disaster was another shipment of explosive Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and western Canada as 15 tank cars jumped the tracks in Lynchburg (VA) on April 30. The town was evacuated, and oil leaked into the source of drinking water for surrounding areas. Last November, a derailed 90-car train carrying crude oil left 11 cars burning after the explosion in western Alabama. The spilled oil is still fouling wetlands there. Last December Residents of Casselton (ND) were evacuated within five miles of the train that derailed and exploded there after a collision with a derailed train carrying grain. A January evacuation near New Brunswick came after a 122-car train derailed and caught fire. Nobody died in these conflagrations compared to the disaster in Lac-Mégantic (Quebec) last summer that killed 47 people after 72 tankers on a runaway train incinerated the downtown.

Rail workers call these 100-tanker trains of Bakken oil “bomb trains.” They travel throughout the country’s cities and towns and along invaluable waterways of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River in the East and the Columbia River through the Gorge in the West. East coast refineries will escalate the amount in upstate New York, making Albany and the Hudson River corridor a major funnel for oil from the western U.S. and Canada.

An Oregon terminal originally allowed to process and ship ethanol has been converted to oil, resulting in millions of gallons of Bakken crude shipped with no consideration of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people as well as salmon runs and other wildlife dependent on the Columbia River.

Railway officials aren’t required to tell the public about the trains’ routes. In fact, they argue that they shouldn’t because terrorists might target these trains. In addition, safety decisions are made very slowly. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has called for new regulations, especially for 1960s-era  DOT-111s, that consultant Fred Millar calls “Pepsi cans on wheels.”  The NTSB’s role is investigating rail accidents, not regulating rail traffic. Deborah Hersman, the person in charge of the NTSB, told a recent Senate hearing that “no community is prepared for a worst-case event.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), in charge of regulation estimates that it might be able to make changes in another year. PHMSA has been known to misuse money allotted to manage emergency preparedness for hazardous materials and withholds public records such as safety inspection reports even after requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Association of American Railroads estimates that more than 75,000 of the 92,000 DOT-111 tank cars now transporting hazardous chemicals need to be retrofitted or even phased out.

Oil train accidents spilled more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil last year, an increase of 50 times the average of 22,000 gallons a year from 1975 through 2012.

Insurance companies are worried. The railroad company in the Lac-Mégantic disaster has failed, leaving clean-up costs of over $180 million. The $25 million that Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway carried in liability insurance left Canadian taxpayers paying for the clean-up. The town’s population is under 6,000, one percent of Portland (OR) where oil trains frequently thunder through. James Beardsley with Marsh & McLennan Cos, said, “There is not currently enough available coverage in the commercial insurance market anywhere in the world to cover the worst-case scenario.”

Both the railroad and federal government officials are waking up. Maximum speeds for trains carrying oil have been reduced, and the trains are routed outside major cities if possible. Yet some refineries, such as a major one in Philadelphia, are in large cities. In January, a train hauling crude oil derailed on a narrow Philadelphia over a major expressway near the University of Pennsylvania, leaving a tanker car and boxcar dangling over a highway and river in a 25-mph wind. Five million barrels of Bakken crude go through Philadelphia every month.

PhiladelphiaInsurers are increasingly protecting themselves when it comes to oil. Standard policies don’t cover fracking pollution, and there are no special policies. The McMillan group explained, “If the full net worth of the company (in addition to insurance coverage) is insufficient to cover the costs associated with an event, those costs will be borne by those who have suffered property damage or injuries.” Few insurance companies provide liability insurance to railroads, and any coverage is typically limited to under $50 million per policy. Mayors of cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago are considering fees to cover costs, but shipping a barrel already runs between $2 and $22 without upgrading rail cars, training first responders, and rebuilding rail lines.

Problems surrounding potential oil train disasters in just one state:

  • First responders can always control or even attack oil fires because they don’t have the materials, such as special foam, to do this.
  • Special foam is expensive–$90 for just two minutes—and rural fire stations can’t afford enough to stop fires.
  • People don’t know where oil trains travel or how many there are because railroads don’t have to make this known as tankers and barges do.
  • Railroads have emergency caches of containment booms to keep spills from spreading, but people don’t know where they are and they can be far away from the greatest danger of oil spills.
  • Different states are not coordinating emergency plans with railroads which also have separate response plans.
  • Funding shortages have cut back on oil spill training for employees, and the railroads don’t pay fees for preparedness as ships carrying oil do.

The good news is that the federal Transportation Department has issued an emergency order requiring that railroads notify state officials about shipments of crude oil of at least 35 tank cars. The Department is also urging shippers to reduce speed and not use older model train cars that are easily ruptured. Trains frequently have 100 or more cars that accident investigators describe as “moving pipelines.” Unfortunately, the safety advisory on tank cars, that are usually owned by or leased to oil companies, is voluntary.

It’s a start—albeit a very weak one—not even addressing the issue of the crumbling railroad track infrastructure that goes back to the mid-nineteenth century. More disasters will not increase help for railroads but will instead probably heighten the conservatives’ demand for oil pipelines which also cause disasters. Greater concentration on green energy would begin to help the problem, but states are beginning to tax solar and wind energy, beginning with Oklahoma and Arizona.

The Koch brothers have declared war on any source of energy other than the fossil fuels that add to their already immense wealth. They are joined by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and some of the nation’s biggest power companies to decrease green energy. Only the slowdown of the oligarchy in the United States can start to solve the country’s serious issues.

Happy National Train Day!


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