Shed Light on Crude Oil Shipments

Courier-Post | July 5, 2015 | Op-ed by Dominick Marino and Debra Coyle McFadden

Should corporate secrecy come before protection of human lives?

That question was raised dramatically by four events recently involving railroad safety, including the deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia.

On Thursday, a freight train derailed and caught fire in Tennessee. More than 5,000 residents were evacuated and a number of emergency workers were hospitalized after being exposed to fumes.

On May 6, a crude oil train in North Dakota caught fire, forcing local residents to evacuate their homes. This was one in a long series of major fires and explosions that have occurred since global oil companies began shipping 40 times more Bakken crude oil through American communities than they did just five years ago. The worst 

Bakken crude oil disaster occurred in 2013 when 47 people in a Quebec community were killed when a rail shipment exploded.

On May 11, the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the U.S. oil industry, went to federal court to try to block the U.S. Department of Transportation from requiring new safety measures for crude oil trains.

On May 12, an Amtrak train derailed, killing at least eight people and sending hundreds more to the hospital. The front end of the train crashed into a rail yard that contained tanker cars of the type that transports crude oil. A massive explosion that could have threatened surrounding communities may have been narrowly averted. A spokesman for the CSX rail line refused to tell the public what was or was not in those tanker cars.

The deadly hazards of Bakken crude oil shipments are of particular concern to residents of New Jersey, as thousands of these rail cars now pass through our communities every week, including heavily populated areas such as Gloucester, Hunterdon, Somerset, Middlesex and Union counties. A derailment in Edison, Woodbridge, Carteret, Perth Amboy or Linden would threaten hundreds of thousands of people. The vapors from a spill, even without a fire or explosion, pose a serious health risk, including exposure to cancer-causing benzene; toluene, which has been linked to nerve damage; and hydrocarbons that have been linked to lung damage.

The threat to public safety will increase even more as oil companies and railroads begin transporting tar sands crude oil through New Jersey. Tar sands oil is even more corrosive than other crude, is maintained at higher temperature and pressure, and contains even higher concentrations of many toxic compounds.

Given the threat that these crude oil shipments pose, it's no wonder that the oil and rail industries are doing everything possible to deny the public's right to know about the hazards. In May, following intense lobbying pressure from industry, the Obama administration rescinded an emergency rule established a year ago that required railroads to share information about crude oil shipments.

"Under this approach," the Transportation Department said, "the transportation of crude oil by rail can ... avoid the negative security and business implications of widespread public disclosure of routing and volume data." On May 28, after facing intense pressure from key stakeholders, the Obama administration reinstated the rule to provide information about crude oil shipments and will work on codifying the rule permanently.

Here in New Jersey, the Christie administration has information from the railroads on each week's dangerous crude oil rail shipments but insists on keeping the public in the dark regarding the hazards, It claims that letting local residents know about the danger would aid "terrorists" — a political fig leaf already rejected by New York, which provides public access to this information.

The issue is now being addressed in the Legislature. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson have sponsored bills that propose requiring owners and operators of certain high hazard trains to disclose routing information.

The Amtrak disaster should spark a far-reaching public discussion about the dangers of dramatic increases in crude oil shipments. The first step is to provide residents with access to information about the hazards our families and communities are facing.

Oil and rail executives and Gov. Chris Christie need to act now to ensure that human lives, not corporate secrecy, come first.

Dominick Marino is president of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey. 

Debra Coyle McFadden is interim director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council.

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE works to promote safe, sustainable energy and environmental justice.  We aim to engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry's assault on the people of Albany and our environment.