Insure the bombs-on-rails

Times Union | May 7, 2015 | Editorial

By law, you must have insurance for all sorts of things, from automobiles to elevators to sidewalk cafes, in case you harm someone or damage something. Yet no coverage is required for some of the most potentially dangerous things in our communities: rail cars carrying crude oil, or any other kind of hazardous cargo, for that matter.

The danger of crude oil rail cars was underscored Wednesday, when a train with 109 cars – all but two bearing crude – derailed in North Dakota. Several cars burst into flames. A tiny town and surrounding farms were evacuated. Fortunately, no one was reported injured.

It was said to be the fifth major derailment this year.

It’s hard not to recall the 2013 crude oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people and caused $2 billion or more in damage. The small railroad involved in the accident, which subsequently went bankrupt, carried just $20 million in insurance.

That’s because, in Canada and the United States, these trains are not required to have insurance. How is that possible? You can’t register a car without insurance. In many localities like Albany, you need insurance to get a taxi medallion, host a group event in a park, erect a barber pole or even put out a news rack. Yet driving a veritable bomb train through populated areas? No worries.

Canadian lawmakers are considering closing this gap with a tax on oil rail shipments and a requirement that train owners have up to $1 billion in liability coverage. The tax would create a fund of up to $250 million to cover damage that exceeds that insurance.

The United States, however, remains without such federal or state insurance mandates. New York does have an oil spill cleanup fund, paid for in part by a tax on oil shipments; it will rise from $25 million to $40 million this year. But that’s a pittance. The rail and oil industries, not the public, should be required to carry coverage proportionate to the damage these trains can do.

That’s all the more imperative and appropriate considering how hard these industries have fought mandates for safer cars and better technology to help prevent derailments.

But it will take a shift in the thinking of politicians who see regulation as anti-business. We witnessed that mentality last year in the failure of a bill proposed by Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, to require oil storage farms to provide coverage for spills, fires or explosions. The bill passed the Democrat-dominated Assembly, but never even got to a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate.

That approach may be friendly to big rail and big oil, but it’s pretty hostile to all the businesses, large and small, in all the communities those trains pass through, and all the people who work in them, and live near them. Maybe lawmakers should have to be insured for the damage caused by their misguided priorities, and misplaced loyalties.

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commented 2015-05-10 19:51:06 -0400 · Flag
Insurance should also be required of the shipper. Big oil needs to pay the true cost of its exploitation. There needs to be a tax on withdrawls to compensate the planet. Internalize the true costs of fossil fuels, and renewables will be a bargain!
commented 2015-05-10 15:37:09 -0400 · Flag
Insurance should ABSOLUTELY be required of these bomb train operators and the customers they serve. Each car is estimated to contain the explosive power of 2 million sticks of dynamite, embodying far more destructive power than any insured car that any individual drives. Many, many homes, businesses and schools are situated close enough to the tracks to bear the devastating brunt of an oil train accident. In Menands, our fire/police department is situated a scant 600 feet downhill from the tracks. Not only could those services be destroyed or seriously compromised, but the cost to rebuild would be prohibitive for our small village. It’s PAST time for our government to require the oil and rail companies to pony up and get insurance. That requirement should have been in place BEFORE they started shipping explosive crude through our communities.
PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy posted about Insure the bombs-on-rails on PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy's Facebook page 2015-05-10 15:22:41 -0400
Insure the bombs-on-rails
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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.