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Diane Bailey’s Blog

What if it happened here? Nobody wants to have a crude oil train derailment in California, but steps to prevent that are lacking.

Diane Bailey

Posted June 20, 2014

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On July 6, 2013 an oil train laden with 72 tank cars of Bakken crude oil crashed and exploded in the middle of Lac Megantic, a small town in Quebec.

lac megantic today.jpg

47 people died.

30 buildings in the town center were destroyed.

A river of fire flowed from the town center, burning everything in its path before plunging into the Chaudière River and Lake Megantic, contaminating the water.  (The image to the right shows the town center now, one year later)

This horrific derailment was shrugged off as an unusual accident.  But then…

  • On October 19, 2013, in Gainford, Alberta, four derailed oil tankers caught on fire and exploded. Evacuations were required.
  • On November 8, 2013, Pickens County, Alabama, a 90-car train derailed, spilling 749,000 gallons of oil; the fire burned for 2 days.
  • December 30, 2013, Casselton, North Dakota, a crude oil train collided with a train carrying grain, spilling 400,000 gallons of crude oil; a huge explosion and fire caused evacuation of 2,000 people.
  • January 7, 2014, Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, an explosion and fire caused a 150-person evacuation for 3 nights.
  • April 30, 2014, Lynchburg, Virginia, 17-car derailment, with explosion and fire, +29,000 gallons of oil spilled into the James River, threatening the Richmond, Virginia water supply.

These are only a small subset of all the derailments over the past year. The derailments are not unusual; they are occurring with much greater frequency as we experience a massive surge in growth of crude oil moving by rail.  And these are not accidents either, because they can be prevented if appropriate safety precautions are taken. But the rail industry has done little more than talk about addressing the problem.  We have yet to see meaningful action. 

We need to ask the question: What if it happens here?  This week we released a series of detailed crude oil rail route maps showing that nearly four million Bay Area and Central/San Joaquin Valley residents are at risk in the event of a derailment if the proliferation of new crude by rail terminal proposals moves forward.

Each of the seven maps identifies people and schools within the half-mile federal evacuation zone for crude oil tanker train accidents and the one-mile recommended isolation zone for accidents where fires ensue.  For example:

  • In Sacramento alone, 256,000 residents and over 175 schools lie within the one-mile evacuation zone
  • In Richmond, 76,000 residents and over 60 schools lie within the one-mile evacuation zone
  • In Bakersfield, 167,000 residents and over 75 schools lie within the one-mile evacuation zone 

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California has already seen a dramatic increase of crude by rail, from 45,000 barrels in 2009 to six million barrels in 2013 - a 100 fold spike without any real safety measures in place. With all of the accidents we have seen over the past year, these mile-long trains put far too many people and schools at risk. 

A dangerous combination of flimsy old tank cars, aging infrastructure, high speeds and cost-cutting operational practices put these communities along crude oil rail lines at extreme risk.  Even worse, the public is completely in the dark on the contents of the tank cars going through their communities, how frequently the mile long trains travel and on graffiti tank car.jpgwhich rail lines.  The rail companies keep the information top secret in the name of national security.  Yet the rail companies fail to secure the same hazardous cargo, which often can be found unattended and unsecured on sidings where anyone can access the rail cars – no fences, no security (graffiti on tank cars is a common site, indicating easy public access).

Fortunately there are straightforward measures that can address many of the safety risks of crude oil by rail:

  1. Remove Defective, Dangerous Tankers from Crude by Rail Service: The existing fleet of dangerous DOT-111 tank cars must be taken out of crude oil service immediately.
  2. Impose Safer Speed Limits: Crude oil unit trains must adhere to speed limits that significantly reduce the possibility of an explosion in the event of a derailment.
  3. Reroute Around Sensitive Areas: The National Transportation Safety Board recommendation that crude oil trains avoid heavily populated areas and otherwise sensitive areas must become mandatory.
  4. Require Disclosure: Information regarding the content of all shipments and relevant risks and emergency procedures should be made accessible to local residents.
  5. Provide Emergency Responder Resources: States should assess fees on shippers and carriers to fully cover the costs of providing emergency response services and safeguarding the public from oil trains, and ensure that there is adequate emergency response capacity.
  6. Make Additional Operational Safety and Oversight Improvements: Unit trains of crude oil and other hazardous materials should be placed in the highest risk category of Hazmat shipments; and many other operational improvements should be made.  Additional inspections of crude oil trains are also critical, including the funding necessary for more rail safety personnel.
  7. Exercise Local Government Powers:
  • Local governments and states can require cumulative risk analysis of crude oil rail infrastructure and increased rail traffic.
  • Local governments should thoroughly evaluate all of the environmental and public health and safety risks of crude oil rail terminals that require land use permits or other forms of local approval.
  • Local governments should reject any new crude oil rail terminals within one mile of sensitive sites such as homes, schools, daycares, and hospitals.

In addition to the growing crude by rail traffic that California is experiencing, five major new crude by rail terminals are in the planning stages that could collectively add up to seven or more mile-long trains running through metropolitan areas every day.  This rush to invest in dirty fossil fuel infrastructure stands in sharp contrast to our state’s important efforts to move in the direction of clean renewable energy.

We are calling on lawmakers to ensure basic safety standards for transporting dangerous fossil fuels. Crude oil train accidents are preventable.  California needs to halt all new oil infrastructure projects until adequate safety measures can be implemented.

Rail companies are cutting corners on safety forcing people living nearby to subsidize their industry through sacrifices to public safety.  As we approach the anniversary of the Lac Megantic tragedy with little accomplished to improve rail safety at the federal level, we need leadership from the state to put community health and safety first.

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Rich FeldmanJun 22 2014 12:47 AM

One thing you can add: a Class 1 RR has at most $1.5 billion in liability insurance. In the event of a major accident in a populated area who will pick up the billions in costs for the damage done and lives lost that will easily exceed the RR's insurance? Not the oil companies - the RR has all the liability. It will be the taxpayer.

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