By Jack Russell
When a freight train carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation derailed and exploded in the middle of the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people and destroying half of the downtown, no one knew it’d mark the start of a new era of train disasters, or that so little would be done to keep more from happening.
Less than a year and 10 oil train derailments later, it’s largely luck that has prevented another deadly disaster. Trains carrying crude travel through an unknown number of American cities on a daily basis, endangering countless residents, and safety efforts move slowly and with industry opposition. And Wednesday, the freight rail industry revealed that mandatory safety technology to prevent derailments and collisions will only be installed on 20 percent of tracks on deadline at the end of 2015.
Examples of inaction on rail safety are plentiful. Firefighters say they aren’t trained to dealwith derailments or explosions. Trains travel in secret, in one instance passing through a town for over a year before residents had any say. Thin-shelled railcars continue to carry crude oil even after their contribution to multiple fiery derailments, and new railcar safety standards still aren’t final. And the Bakken crude oil that’s driving the need for train shipments was only discovered to be especially flammable after several explosions and fires had occurred.
The pace of oil drilling at North Dakota’s Bakken formation has created new need for sending oil by rail. Drilling companies are developing oil sources at a breakneck speed, meaning there’s no time to address worker safety or the wasteful flaring of a third of natural gas produced as a byproduct. A haphazard approach toward preventing disastrous crashes is just another consequence of prizing speed above all, despite the fact that the oil has been underground for millions of years, and isn’t going anywhere on its own.
Transporting oil by rail is a fairly new issue, which can obscure the fact that dramatic accidents shot up right with the volume of oil transported. As recently as 2010, only about 30,000 carloads of crude oil originated in the United States. By 2012 that number was 233,819 carloads, and 2013 saw 407,642. In the entire period from 1975 to 2012, railroads only spilled 800,000 gallons of crude. The Casselton, North Dakota spill alone spilled about 400,000.
But there’s hope, as communities take matters into their own hands, opposing hazardous oil-by-rail terminals even as industry officials throw a fit. An attempt to build the Pacific Northwest’s largest oil train terminal in Vancouver, Washington has come up againstsignificant opposition from the city council over concerns for the safety of the city’s 165,000 residents. The terminal could take in 131 million barrels of oil a year, in the form of four trains a day, and Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos., the companies behind the terminal, are scrambling to push it through. The Port of Portland already said no to oil train terminals over safety concerns. And …read more