The West Virginia Wake-up Call Over ‘Bomb Trains’

Common Dreams | February 20, 2015 | Column by Jared Margolis

The derailment and fiery explosion of an oil train in West Virginia this week was a frightening reminder of the dangers these trains pose every day along thousands of miles of track across the United States.

There is no truly safe way to transport Bakken crude, tar sands oil, and other petroleum products. Recommendations contained in a new report by the Center for Biological Diversity say "extreme fossil fuels should be left in the ground" for the sake of our communities, our waterway's, the nation's wildlife, and the planet's climate. (Image: Cover detail/CBD report)

And it’s only getting worse. Since 2008, oil-by-rail transport has grown 40-fold and we’ve seen a troubling spike in oil spills, derailments and environmental devastation. We’ve yet to see federal regulators respond to these escalating risks.

That needs to change. What happened in West Virginia (and a similar explosive derailment of another oil train in Ontario two days earlier) will be repeated unless the Obama administration puts a moratorium on oil trains and takes step to ensure these trains can operate in a way that protects people, wildlife and the environment.

A new study by the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, uncovers striking new details on the broad range of unchecked risks to people and the environment posed by the largely unregulated escalation in U.S. rail transport of oil.

The report— titled "Runaway Risks: Oil Trains and the Government’s Failure to Protect People, Wildlife and the Environment"(pdf)—reveals that.

  • An estimated 25 million Americans live within the one-mile evacuation zone recommended by the U.S. Department of Transportation;
  • Oil trains routinely pass within a quarter-mile of 3,600 miles of streams and more than 73,000 square miles of lakes, wetlands and reservoirs, including the Hudson, Mississippi and Columbia rivers, the Puget Sound, Lake Champlain and Lake Michigan;
  • Oil trains also go through 34 national wildlife refuges and within a quarter-mile of critical habitat for 57 threatened or endangered species, including the California tiger salamander, California red-legged frog, piping plover, bull trout and several imperiled species of salmon, steelhead and sturgeon

The unprecedented increase in U.S. oil train traffic from fewer than 10,000 rail cars per year in 2008 to more than 400,000 in 2014 has spurred virtually no corresponding increase in safety preparedness plans, not only putting towns and cities across America in routine danger, but leaving some of the nation’s most imperiled wildlife and natural areas at increased risk from a catastrophic spill.

Even as the overall number of train accidents in the country has declined in recent years, the number of dangerous oil train derailments has increased — in part because the longer, heavier trains, often carrying more than 1 million gallons of oil, are more difficult to control and stop, according to rail safety accounts included in today’s report.

Here are some of the recommendations we’re making:

  • Immediately ban the transport of oil in the outdated DOT-111 tank cars involved in several fiery oil-train derailments in recent years.
  • Issue a moratorium on all crude-by-rail transport until new tank car standards can be issued that would provide design specifications to ensure that tank cars do not rupture in the event of a derailment at maximum operating speeds and include sufficient thermal protection to withstand derailments.
  • Amend the regulations to require comprehensive oil-spill response plan for oil trains to ensure adequate training, personnel and equipment necessary to respond to a worst-case spill scenario.
  • Limit the length and weight of oil trains to 30 cars per train/4,000 total tons, since DOT has acknowledged that the excessive length and weight of these trains has contributed to the increased derailments and spills in recent years, and compounds the potential significance of an oil-train disaster.
  • Establish speed limit zones below the puncture rating of oil tank cars (typically less than 20 mph) in all population centers, and within a quarter-mile of any body of water, critical habitat of endangered species, national wildlife refuges, national parks or other recognized special areas.

Some are using the West Virginia accident to argue that shipping oil through pipelines like Keystone XL would be a safer option, but the reality is that pipelines too are far from safe. Indeed, since 1986 there have been nearly 8,000 accidents involving pipelines (nearly 300 per year on average), resulting in more than 500 deaths, more than 2,300 injuries, and nearly $7 billion in damage. 

The reality is that there’s no way to safely transport the highly volatile crude from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota or the heavy crudes from the Alberta tar sands. Instead these extreme fossil fuels should be left in the ground for our safety and to avoid the impending climate catastrophe.

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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.