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Diane Bailey’s Blog

The Lac-Mégantic crude oil train derailment tragedy: A year later, are we safer?

Diane Bailey

Posted July 7, 2014 in Health and the Environment, Moving Beyond Oil

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Today over 1,000 people packed Ste-Agnes Church in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec to remember the 47 people who died there one year ago after a run-away crude oil train derailed and exploded. Together with Mayor Roy Laroche, who gave a moving speech on the disaster today, residents are calling for no more crude oil trains through their community.  They want bypass tracks built.

47 raisons.jpgAnd for good reason.  Experts say that not a lot has changed to improve safety since the Lac-Mégantic derailment tragedy woke everyone up to the nightmare of mass amounts of volatile crude oil moving by rail.  Since then there have been over a dozen serious crude oil train derailments, six with major fires, but luckily no more fatalities.  While Canada has taken some steps to improve safety like removing the most dangerous tank cars from crude by rail service, the U.S. has done little more than a feeble listing of voluntary measures

Today marks the beginning of a week of action to call attention to the dual threats of moving extreme crude oil by rail.  How many trains travel through communities carrying crude oil?  What kind of crude oil – how dirty and how volatile is it?  How close are the tracks to schools and homes?  According to recent reports of crude oil train activity, the largest rail company moving crude oil, BNSF, ships 170 or more mile-long trains each week from North Dakota’s Bakken crude oil play.  BNSF brags about its safety culture but in reality has done little to improve crude oil rail safety.  At a recent conference a representative of BNSF stammered after being asked how many dangerous old tank cars they’ve replaced so far, and ultimately couldn’t answer the question.  Because of the serious safety threats posed by transport of crude oil by rail and the health, environmental and safety threats of using extreme crude oil, some groups have issued a call to Keep oil off the rails and in the ground (Join this event in Sacramento on Wednesday July 9th).

Note: The picture below, taken in Hawthorne Woods, Illinois, shows a rail tank car passing a playground - an all too frequent sight.

IL CBR.jpg

In California alone, at least 4 million people and hundreds of schools are directly in harm’s way next to rail lines, facing serious safety risks from potential crude oil train derailments.  According to maps that were recently released by the state’s Working Group on Oil by Rail Safety, many rail lines through California cities are surrounded by residential neighborhoods, schools and hospitals. The state’s rail network is also cris-crossed with fault lines, rivers and streams, and sensitive wildlife habitats.   It turns out that there are many measures that can be taken to dramatically improve crude by rail safety (like slowing down and replacing the most dangerous old tank cars), as soon as the oil and rail industries are ready to take responsibility for the problem and implement basic safety measures to avert future disasters.

While rebuilding has gone on in Lac-Mégantic and there are efforts at renewal with trout released into the lake and butterflies released into the sky today, many residents are still haunted by the derailment disaster.  Construction equipment is busily working in the downtown area where the post office, library and restaurants once stood.  Residents are bracing for a battle to get the rail lines to bypass the town center.  Throughout America, one year later, as ever more crude oil trains speed through communities, we are all still asking: Are we any safer?

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Comments

jakeJul 10 2014 09:23 AM

And today, news that there are plans to build a large rail terminal in Texas to help get more Canadian heavy oil to the area to replace Venezuelan heavy crude imports.

The NRDC claim is that "tar sands" won't be developed without KXL, but this clearly shows that your argument is complete BS.

The more the NRDC and other radicals get in the way of pipelines, the more crude oil gets shipped by rail. So since you are part of the problem, how about you stop acting all outraged by it?

http://fuelfix.com/blog/2014/07/09/new-port-arthur-rail-terminal-could-bring-more-canadian-oil-to-gulf-coast/

Diane BaileyJul 10 2014 01:46 PM

Jake, most people do not want exploding trains going through their community. It's that simple, not so radical really. There are obvious safety precautions that the rail carriers can take when transporting hazardous substances, but right now they are choosing not to pay for improved safety despite the terrible spate of incidents we've seen over the past year. Safety needs to come first.

As far as tar sands, yes, we continue to be outraged by this dangerous, toxic crude oil that is destructive at every step of the way (see our factsheet: http://www.nrdc.org/energy/files/tar-sands-health-effects-IB.pdf)
If you want to see the destruction wrought by the tar sands industry in Alberta, take a look at Alex MacLean's photos: http://inhabitat.com/alex-macleans-aerial-images-of-tar-sands-reveal-shocking-details-about-keystone-xl-source/

Whatever your position is on pipelines or rail transport of crude, wouldn't you agree that we should do everything we can to avoid the dirtiest fuels, put safety first and work towards a fossil fuel-free future?

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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