Dirty Crude Oil By Rail: 2013 Closed With a Boom
Posted January 3, 2014
While the Federal Rail Administration asserts that 2012 was the safest year in the industry's history and that hazardous material releases have gone down over the last decade, the boom in oil shipments by rail has led to a ka-boom of fiery derailments in 2013. The year closed out with one of the worst oil train derailments to date on December 30th just narrowly missing the town of Casselton, North Dakota and prompting an evacuation of most of the 2,300 residents (see photo to the left). Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell said that at least 100 people could have been killed if the wreck had happened in town and that is just "too close for comfort."
Oil rail shipments are at an all-time high and rapidly growing. In the wake of one of the worst oil train accidents that killed 47 people in Quebec last summer (see an in depth overview of the incident here), newly proposed federal rail safety standards attempt to improve oil train performance. But this rule cannot be implemented fast enough to address the serious public health and safety hazard posed by these 100 tanker car and longer oil trains travelling on old tracks through dozens of small towns. (See NRDC comments here). One expert notes not only that Bakken shale oil from North Dakota is separating in the tanker cars with the most volatile (and flammable) portion rising to the top, making it particularly accident prone, but that this is likely also the case with Canadian tar sands diluted with chemical solvents (so called DilBits).
The U.S. Department of Transportation finally issued a safety alert yesterday, warning that the very light gasoline-like crude oil coming from the Bakken “poses a significant fire risk.” The federal warning is a good acknowledgment of the problem but it doesn’t address the immediate safety risk to all of the communities around rail lines currently transporting oil trains or communities with planned new oil terminals. Right now, communities lack even basic information about what is being transported through their communities.
In California, 2013 saw no less than seven separate proposals for new “crude by rail” oil terminals that could import much dirtier or more dangerous crude oils. At least ten other “pipeline on wheels” crude by rail projects are slated for the West Coast and many others in the rest of the U.S. Too many of these projects are slated to be in residential areas with homes and schools nearby putting those communities directly in harm’s way.
Residents in some towns faced with dangerous new oil rail terminal proposals are fighting these projects with an inspiring mix of grassroots activism and creativity. In Pittsburg, California, residents held a toxic tour last month to alert their neighbors and city officials to the hazards of bringing dirty crude oil into their scenic and peaceful waterfront community. Even the Governor’s Office of Policy and Regulation weighed in recently with questions and concern over that project’s potential to import vast quantities of dirty crude oil, including tar sands. In advance of expected action over the next few months on the major oil terminal proposal for Pittsburg, the community is also planning a march and rally on January 11th. See a list of additional events here as that community organizes to stop the WesPac oil terminal project.
With all of the fiery oil train derailments of 2013, does it make sense to bring the dirtiest, most dangerous crude oil into our communities with volatile, flammable tanker cars by the hundreds? Here in the Bay Area, we’re asking our air district to evaluate the full suite of potential public health and safety impacts of these projects. We extend this request to all officials throughout the nation who are considering new oil projects. It’s not enough to issue warnings that oil trains are dangerous – we already know that. We need to safeguard communities from these accident-prone oil trains, and right now that means no more new oil terminals at the very least.
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