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OIL TRAIN ISSUES

Colin Edwards

 

There has been a dramatic increase in the use of oil trains over the past decade, putting communities, wildlife, and the environment at risk. When trains carrying Bakken Crude oil derail, they not only catch fire, they explode (See Bakken Oil Shale Basin). Many communities that are faced with these trains coming through their town see them as a ticking time bomb. It is not if the oil train will derail, but instead when the oil train will cause a disaster.

Infrastructure

Rebecca Ponzio, who I interviewed for this project, is the oil campaign director at the Washington Environmental Council. She directs the “Stand Up to Oil Campaign,” a broad coalition of organizations and interested parties who are fighting the oil industry plan to bring crude oil into the Pacific Northwest. Ponzio stated that, “The risks are many, and they are not theoretical unfortunately.” These trains are constantly derailing and the derailments could be within a community, near a river, or a water supply. Derailments can also cause leakage, which results in the oil getting into the water system and the soil.

Even if a train does not derail, there are still impacts caused from the train simply going from point A to point B. The length of an oil train is up to a mile, and the extremely heavy rail cars put stress on the railroads, leading to wear and tear.

 (Credit: Canadian Pacific)

(Credit: Canadian Pacific)

Just looking at Washington State they go through the middle of downtown Spokane, they go through the middle of many communities in the Columbia River and the Columbia Gorge. They go through Vancouver. They go through small communities and through very populated communities. They even go underneath downtown Seattle. (Ponzio)
 (Credit: The Long Tail Pipeline) 

(Credit: The Long Tail Pipeline) 

When the trains go through such populated areas, they can increase traffic congestion. Because they are so long, they stop traffic, including emergency vehicles, for a massive period of time,  Ponzio mentioned, “We’ve heard from emergency responders that they actually had to wait to get to the call they were responding to because of these long trains, oil trains.” On top of causing congestion, these trains are also known to leak and release volatile compounds, along with the diesel emissions from powering the trains.  According to Ponzio “There is not a safe and effective way to contain these compounds” and these are all issues that occur without the train derailing in the first place (Elliott / Ahearn).

 (Credit: Nati Harnik)

(Credit: Nati Harnik)

The original tankers used for transporting oil are referred to as the DOT-111, also known as the CTC-111A in Canada, with a maximum capacity of 34,500 gallons.  They were designed to carry other liquids, not oil. Because of this they encounter many issues, as Ponzio states,

These tank cars are known to not be constructed in a way that is safe for the level of volatility of the crude oil, so the area were the valves are located are not in the right location, they aren’t secured enough, and they pop off. They have seen many derailments across North America where you know if it had been grain or bio-fuel or some other liquid it would have been fine but because it’s so volatile these tank cars they just hold the substance in.
 (Credit: Chris Philpot)

(Credit: Chris Philpot)

So instead of upgrading these tankers, or investing money to make them safer, companies use these old tankers that have been constantly derailing and exploding over the years. The companies claim they are working on a much more efficient type of tanker for transporting the oil. Recent Bakken oil train fires in Lynchburg, Virginia and Mosier, Oregon involved the newer rail cars.  Ponzio commented:

We haven’t actually seen a new tank car design that is safe. So not only are the existing oil models known to be unsafe, the newer models have been shown in derailments, they also explode, catch on fire, they have not yet found a way to transport this crude oil that is safe.

Community Impacts

 (Credit: Star Tribune)

(Credit: Star Tribune)

These companies are showing no evidence that they can transport this fuel safely. Along with the old and inferior tankers, there is also the issue of the conditions of the railroads they travel on (Stern). I asked Ponzio how often the rails are inspected, and she explained that “The answer is extremely complicated for such a simple question.” It depends on the infrastructure and it varies state by state. Ponzio explains that these inspections are typically not available to the public: “It’s not required to share their inspection schedule with the public, so it would need to go through the oversight agency at the federal or the state in order to get public access to that.” If the public has no access to this information there is no way for us to be sure of our own safety.

In the scenario of an oil train accident or derailment the cost to clean up the damage alone could be anywhere between one to five billion dollars. That is the cleanup alone; Ponzio made it clear that: 

There is the cleanup cost of just getting that stuff out of the soil, getting that stuff out of the water, getting that stuff out of the water supply system. There is the cost to human life, so paying for families of the people who died. There is the cost of rebuilding the infrastructure, so rebuilding the water supply system, rebuilding downtown. And then there are the costs that are not calculated. So what is the cost to the tourism that went there? What is the cost to the fish and the wildlife that were in that particular lake? And what does that look like many generations down the line? How will that impact the viability of the community? Those are things that are not accounted for.

Some companies are unable to even pay for these accidents (De Place). For example on July, 6 2013 in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec,  “An unattended 74-car freight train carrying Bakken formation crude oil rolled down a 1.2% grade hill from Nantes and derailed downtown, resulting in the fire and explosion of multiple tank cars. Forty-seven people were confirmed dead” (BBC News).

 

 

 (Credit: Paul Chiassen)

(Credit: Paul Chiassen)

According to Ponzio, the rail company went bankrupt because they were unable to pay for the damages caused by the derailments and left the burden to the Canadian government and people, who became responsible for cleaning up an overwhelming mess. 

Economic Impacts

To look at the impacts from a different point of view, we could assess them from an economic perspective. For example, if another train was to derail in a popular area (such as the Columbia Gorge) and cause damage, the tourism dollars that area brings in would be diminished. “That’s not going to be a destination, except for the people cleaning it up,” Ponzio observed.  

 (Credit: John L. Wathen)

(Credit: John L. Wathen)

Climate Change

Oil is an major contributor to the production of carbon dioxide, which is causing climate change. People all around the world are beginning to realize that climate change is our most imminent threat. We can no longer support oil companies that contribute to such a major threat. There are much more effective and safe ways to produce our energy. I do understand oil trains are not the main cause of climate change, they are however a key piece of the puzzle.  If we do not invest in clean and renewable energy, I am frightened to see what the world we live in will become.

I asked Ponzio if she believed there is an increase in public concern behind the issues of oil trains and this is what she had to say:

This is an issue that impacts people across all spectrums of our region from labor, from school teachers, to health providers, religious leaders, from businesses, and people more and more are concerned from all those different vantage points because they see it impacting them. Whether it’s the school that’s besides the track and there is concern about an accident. Whether it’s the mayor of a small community saying I can’t deal with this, this is directly impacting the root ability in my community. Whether it’s the first responders saying I can’t respond to the emergency. So yes I certainly believe there is a significant increase of public concern.

There is a long list of changes that must be made to address this issue, starting with keeping fossil fuels such as oil in the ground. The number of variables that can affect whether a train will derail are too high. We can no longer put our environment and our communities at risk. 

Sources

Ahearn, A. (2015). Growing oil train traffic is shrouded in secrecy. Reveal News. 

Elliott, B. (2014, April 10). Oil-by-rail traffic causing delays to farmers, Amtrak passengers. Huffington Post.

BBC News. (2014, May 13). Lac-Megantic train explosion: Three charged in Quebec. BBC News.

Place, E. D. (2015, October 19). Grays Harbor oil trains would be severely underinsured. Sightline Institute.

Stern, M. (2015, November 10). Half of surveyed oil train bridges are deteriorating, report says. Aljazeera America.