AlterNet / Background
In 2013 the list of top environmental stories included the horrific July 2013 oil train explosion in the Quebec town of Lac Megantic that killed 47 people. But it wasn’t until this year that reporters, environmental groups and community organizations caught up to the fact that shipping oil by rail is:
1) a growing practice that 2) poses a real threat to public safety and 3) is frightfully under-regulated.
The sudden burst of attention was due, in large part, to spate of oil-by-rail accidents in late 2013 and 2014. In November 2013 a train carrying 2.7 million gallons of crude oil from the Bakken fields exploded near Aliceville, Alabama. A month later, a train collision in Casselton, North Dakota spilled 400,000 gallons of petroleum. And then on April 30, 2014, an oil train derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Virginia, forcing the evacuation of 300 people. People began waking up to the fact that each day million of gallons of highly combustible oil are moving through major metropolitan areas.”
National newspapers like The New York Times have jumped on the issue, as have environmental groups like Forest Ethics and Earthjustice, which just this month filed a lawsuit to ban the DOT-111 cars that most oil is shipped in. According to a story in Mother Jones, the DOT-111 is like “the Ford Pinto of rail cars.” Federal regulators are belatedly taking action. In July, the US Department of Transportation proposed new rules to govern shipping crude by rail; even Republicans applauded the move. But the issue is far from settled. With the U.S. shale oil boom continuing and pipelines stretched to capacity, oil-by-rail will continue to be a hot topic in 2015.
Whereas Chicago serves as the rail capital of the nation, with an average 500 trains passing through Illinois each day, the Chicago Greens are concerned about the threat posed to communities by the increased number of tanks cars transporting oil passing through the area. Tanks cars have a plate thickness of only 7⁄16 inch, and each car has a maximum capacity of carrying 34,500 US gallons of oil. Chicago handles one-fourth of the nation's freight rail traffic, each day handling 37,500 railcars.
Much of the oil is being hauled by an old fleet of some 78,000 tank cars that are prone to split during accidents. Older cars lack puncture-resistant steel jackets, thermal insulation, and heavy steel shields. In a fire, the blanket helps prevent oil in tank cars that have not ruptured from overheating and exploding.
Rail shipments of crude oil have grown from a few thousand carloads a decade ago to 434,000 carloads last year.
The state is served by 47 common freight carrier railroads, and 10 private freight carriers. Cars may be changed at any of the 21 yards in the metropolitan area. There are at least 25 major "junctions" where trains headed in different directions, on different railroads, will regularly meet or encounter one another. In addition, 760 passenger trains pass through the region every day. Freight trains spend an average of 30 hours traversing the Chicago region. There is no legal limit to the length of train, which is usually limited only by the length that will fit in a siding. "Helper" engines can be added at the rear of a train, and enable increasing the length. Super freight trains, although not common, can extend about 3 1/2 miles. The train in the Lac-Mégantic derailment was made up of 72 cars.
Railroads are trying to meet the increased demand for shipping oil. BNSF Railway, the industry’s largest transporter of crude oil, announced in 2014 plans to purchase its own fleet of up to 5,000 crude oil tank cars, stating that these will be built to safety standards exceeding the hazmat standards. Typically, railroads don’t own the tank cars they pull.
The oil industry maintains that proposed federal rules to make hauling crude oil by rail safer and avoid fiery wrecks would drive up costs, and put the U.S. energy revival at risk.
The American Petroleum Institute, joined by the Association of American Railroads, recently proposed keeping older tank cars, which investigators say are vulnerable to puncture, in service for twice as long as envisioned by regulators drafting rules for carrying flammable liquids like oil on trains.
The oil and railroad industries are urging federal regulators to allow them as long as seven years to upgrade existing tank cars.
The Chicago Greens are continuing to press members of the Illinois delegation to Congress to address the issue of increased oil train traffic in the region, and the apparent reluctance to acknowledge the potential hazards to communities situated along rail routes.