Hear the Oil Trains a Comin’

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By Susan Cosier. Originally published at OnEarth Magazine.

[Photo of oil cars by Roy Luck/Flickr.]

[A]n alarming 70 trains carrying crude oil have derailed across the United States over the last year, according to a new analysis by Politico, spilling their flammable contents into unsuspecting cities, swamps, and waterways from New York to California. Property damage from oil train derailments is already three times higher this year than it was last year, Politico reports, concluding that the fast-growing crude-by-rail industry is outpacing government oversight and putting communities across the country at risk.

What’s causing the pileup of oil train disasters? North America is in the midst of an oil and gas boom, largely due to fracking, so more oil is finding its way to refineries by rail car—often in aging or inadequately built cars that weren’t designed to carry heavy crude.

“There’s been such exponential growth … that it’s basically outrun our normal systems,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told Politico, acknowledging that his agency needs to play catch up—and fast.

For starters, Foxx recently issued an emergency order requiring railroad companies to start disclosing information about oil train shipments to state emergency management officials. (Often state and local officials—like the mayor of Lynchburg, Virginia, where an oil train exploded in April—have no idea their communities are in danger.)

Now any trains transporting more than 1 million gallons of crude (about 35 cars worth) from the Bakken region in North Dakota, Montana, and part of Canada—where the heavy crude boom is centered—must tell state officials their routes, the amount of oil they’re carrying, and how often trains clack down the tracks.

In the meantime, several states aren’t just sitting around waiting for disaster to strike. They’re tightening transportation rules to make sure that emergency responders have the information and equipment they need to tackle oil train accidents.

Railroad companies have said that making information about oil train shipments public is a security threat, but officials in Montana and Washington disagree. Oregon is also disclosing details about shipments (though the state’s transportation department had to be pressured into it). Here’s a look at how some other states are stiffening their safety standards (or trying to):

Even though the Golden State’s spill preparedness rules are already stricter than the federal laws, a new bill introduced by State Representative Roger Dickinson would mandate that rail companies submit quarterly reports to emergency responders, outlining their hazardous materials emergency response plan, and maintain a response management communications center. But it’s not all good news: state officials said last week that they wouldn’t tell the public where the trains go or how many shipments are moving through communities.

recently passed law requires any railroad carrying crude through the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” to give the state pollution control agency its spill prevention and response plans. Rail companies also have to practice their plans and provide funds to pay for the training and equipment for state and local emergency crews.

A proposed oil transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver, Washington, would be the largest in the Northwest. But so far BNSF Railway, which transports the majority of crude through the state, has fought against any bills requiring more transparency about what the trains are carrying and where they go. Although all the bills have gone nowhere, lawmakers already say they’re planning more next year.

New York
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in April that he would amp up crude-by-rail oversight. A bill currently being drafted would increase an existing oil-spill fund used to clean spills and protect the state’s air, soil, and water. Right now the fund stands at $25 million, but one legislator says it should be more like $2 billion. That’s the estimated cost of cleaning up Lac-Megantic, Quebec after an oil train derailed there in 2013, killing 47 people and leaking 1.6 million gallons of oil.

After the train derailed in Lynchburg in April, sending three cars full of North Dakota crude plunging into the James River, Governor Terry McAuliffe appointed a rail safety task force to review state regulations. It met for the first time earlier this month and will recommend steps that the state and federal government can take to ensure that responders are prepared if another train goes off the tracks.

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Susan Cosier is OnEarth’s Midwest correspondent. She previously worked at Audubon magazine, and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She’s a graduate of New York University’s science journalism program.

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