New Investigative Report Documents Threat from Oil Trains on Nation’s Neglected Rail Infrastructure
With a 5,000% increase in oil train traffic, Waterkeepers across the U.S. identify significant areas of concern with 114 railway bridges along known and potential routes of explosive oil trains
Tina Posterli, and Eddie Scher, Tuesday Nov 10, 2015
Waterkeeper Alliance, ForestEthics, Riverkeeper and a national network of Waterkeeper organizations released a new investigative report today called DEADLY CROSSING: Neglected Bridges & Exploding Oil Trains exploring the condition of our nation’s rail infrastructure and how it is being stressed by oil train traffic. From July to September 2015, Waterkeepers from across the country documented potential deficiencies of 250 railway bridges in 15 states along known and potential routes of explosive oil trains, capturing the state of this often neglected infrastructure in their communities.
The Waterkeepers identified areas of serious concern on 114 bridges, nearly half of those observed. Photos and video footage of the bridges inspected show signs of significant stress and decay, such as rotted, cracked, or crumbling foundations, and loose or broken beams. Waterkeepers were also present when crude oil trains passed and observed flexing, slumping and vibrations that crumbled concrete.
“Waterkeepers boarded their patrol boats to uncover what is happening to the structural integrity of our nation’s railway bridges, a responsibility our federal government has shirked,” said Marc Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “People deserve to know the state of this infrastructure and the risks oil trains pose as they rumble through our communities.”
This effort was initiated out of concern for the threat posed by the 5,000 percent increase in oil train traffic since 2008. Oil train traffic increases both the strain in rail infrastructure, as well as the likelihood of a rail bridge defect leading to an oil train derailment, spill, explosion and fire.
“Half the bridges we looked at have potentially serious safety problems,” says Matt Krogh, ForestEthics extreme oil campaign director. “There are 100,000 rail bridges in the U.S. – any one of them could be the next deadly crossing. Oil trains are rolling over crumbling bridges and we can’t wait for the next derailment, spill, and explosion to act.”
A review of rail bridge safety standards revealed that the federal government cedes authority and oversight of inspections and repairs to railway bridge owners. Overly broad federal law, lax regulations, and dangerously inadequate inspections and oversight compound the threat from oil trains. The 2008 federal law and subsequent Department of Transportation standards regulating rail bridge safety leaves responsibility for determining load limits, safety inspections, and maintenance with rail bridge owners.
“Do truckers get to inspect their own trucks? Do you get to inspect your own car? Of course not. So it’s insane, and completely unacceptable, that the rail industry gets to inspect its own infrastructure while moving cargo that is of such enormous risk to American citizens and the environment,” said Riverkeeper Boat Captain John Lipscomb.
Oil trains directly threaten the life and safety of 25 million Americans living inside the 1 mile evacuation blast zone in the case of an oil train fire, and the drinking water supplies for tens of millions more, says the report. The groups are calling for the federal government and rail industry to immediately inspect all rail bridges, share safety information with emergency responders and the public, and stop oil train traffic on any bridge with known safety problems.
Just before last week’s Independence Day holiday weekend, more than 5,000 residents living near Maryville, TN were evacuated after a CSX tanker car derailed and caught fire on July 2. The tanker car was carrying Acrylonitrile, a highly flammable and toxic gas which can cause membrane irritation, headaches, nausea and kidney irritation if inhaled in high concentrations. Ten officers and 30 first responders were hospitalized with inhalation injuries following the incident, where authorities established a two mile evacuation zone near the derailment site.
The July 2013 explosion of a Bakken crude train at Lac-Megantic, Quebec that resulted in 47 fatalities got the immediate attention of first responders, lawmakers and local officials wherever freight lines carry crude oil “bomb trains.” Environmental watchdog groups have publicized the danger of crude by rail and have also taken legal action in an attempt to halt or change practices they deem unsafe.
Want to make your own voice heard?
If you are concerned about the hazards of crude by rail in Rockland County, let your village, town and county officials know how you feel. Write or call your representatives in Albany and Washington. Write a letter to the editor.
You can also stay in touch with groups like the Sierra Club, Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson and Forest Ethics. You can subscribe to the DOT-111 reader, a private website that tracks media reports about accidents and regulation changes involving rail tanker cars.
The people at the FRA, the NTSB and PHMSA are tasked with protecting us all from transport and materials hazards. Visit their websites, write or call them. They work for you.
Just say no?
Local officials are limited in what they can do to stop hazardous cargo like crude oil from being transported through their communities. There is a Common Carrier Obligation of railroads to transport hazardous materials. As long as those materials comply with government standards, railroads can’t pick and choose what to carry or where to carry it. Federal law stands between local governments and the rail operators in the interest of interstate commerce.
In addition to issuing and enforcing safety regulations, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) does research on behalf of the railroad industry. In May 2015 it issued new guidelines for the gradual replacement of the outdated DOT-111 tanker car and set mandatory speed limits for oil tanker trains. Oil companies are threatening legal action against these new rules.
Another USDOT agency, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), has an interest in freight train safety. The NTSB analyzes mishaps, finds transportation hazards and recommends solutions. Rail tanker safety is high on its list of “most wanted” improvements, and it’s pushing for more immediate remedies than the FRA has specified. The USDOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration(PHMSA) is also actively monitoring oil train safety, with a mission to “protect people and the environment from the risks of hazardous materials transportation.” It tracks HAZMAT accidents and recommends regulatory changes.
New York State
Oil train traffic in New York State has increased dramatically in the last three years, during which time oil and freight rail companies have spent almost $1 million lobbying in Albany. Meanwhile, NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered and carried out several inspections of freight rail infrastructure throughout the state and has uncovered numerous hazards. CSX has responded to reports from these inspections with assurances that all will be addressed.
Protect yourself and your family
Know where you are in relation to hazardous freight trains. Study the CSX System Map to know where oil trains run, especially in relation to your home, your kids’ schools, where you work, shop and play. You can also use the Blast Zone Interactive Map from ForestEthics. Trains have derailed, exploded and burned at low speeds and high speeds, in remote areas, and in the middle of a town. There is no discernible pattern to these accidents, according to PHMSA, so don’t assume it won’t happen near you.
Sign up your landline or cellphone number for emergency notification throughNY-Alert. If you are already signed up, check your information to make sure it is up to date.
In the event of a spill, explosion or fire, officials will use reverse 911 and NY Alerts to let you know whether to evacuate, how far to go, where to shelter, and when you can return. Disabled and senior citizens who might need help in an emergency should register with the Rockland County Access and Functional Needs Registry and with local police, so that first responders are aware.
Clarkstown residents can sign up for the town alert system, Ready Clarkstown, on the town of Clarkstown website.
Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded quickly to the USDOT’s May 2015 oil train safety plan. He proposed federal legislation to shorten the upgrade schedule and to impose even stricter speed limits on oil trains. In a May 4 press release, Schumer stated that “allowing these outdated oil cars to continue rolling through our communities for another eight years is a reckless gamble we can’t afford to make.”
At a May 6 press conference in West Nyack, Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY representing Rockland County) proposed legislation that would ban interstate shipment of high-volatility crude oil via rail. Citing her many constituents who live near freight lines, she said that her “proposal would immediately ban interstate shipment of the most volatile forms of crude oil so that we can prevent the next tragic crude oil event.” Shipping of Bakken crude that has been processed to reduce its volatility before shipment would still be permitted.
In April, the Rockland County Legislature passed a resolution urging the USDOT to immediately enact rules to reduce the volatility of Bakken crude oil traveling by rail through Rockland County in support of the 2015 “Crude by Rail Safety Act” (H.R. 1804/S. 859).
In December 2013, a car carrier and a 99-car oil tanker train collided at the Pineview crossing in West Nyack only 100 feet from the Lake DeForest water main that serves lower Rockland and Bergen County. The incident got the attention of Rockland County Sheriff Louis Falco near whose home the accident occurred. Because the tankers were empty damage was limited, but it served as a wakeup call for the Sheriff’s Department and Rockland Fire and EMS to get real-time hazardous cargo information from CSX to Rockland’s first responders.
CSX and other freight haulers of hazardous materials cite commercial interests and terror concerns for their reluctance to disclose the exact location and contents of trains. Falco says CSX now has a phone app for first responders that provides near-real-time information in the event of disaster. The issue of transparency and oil trains, however, is far from solved: rail freight companies in several states are being pressed to provide more real-time information, and they are fighting back with lawsuits.
The Rockland County Sheriff’s Department is now also monitoring oil train speed with radar guns. Falco says trains have been staying under the 50 mph limit, but immediate improvements to Rockland’s grade crossings are still needed.
Along with the Sheriff’s Department and the Town Police Departments on the River Line, evacuation and response plans are being developed by the Rockland County Department of Fire and Emergency Services. They run training sessions and drills to keep volunteer first responders prepared in the case of an incident, and also work with CSX on training, communication and response. CSX also positions supplies of fire-suppression foam along the River Line for use in a HAZMAT incident.
CSX will participate in a full scale derailment drill for Police, Fire and EMS in Orangetown that is planned for July 23.
If it happens…
If you are within a half mile of the incident, get yourself and your family away quickly. If in doubt, don’t wait for a call: just go.
The USDOT recommends one-half mile as a safe zone, but you may receive an alert advising otherwise.
Leaving the area quickly also allows emergency responders the time and space to stage and work.
“Time and distance are your friends,” says Rockland Fire and Emergency Deputy Director Dan Greeley.
The Hudson Valley Sierra Club, Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson (among others) have been active and vocal in publicizing the oil train hazard in the Hudson Valley, as well as the dangers of light and heavy crude transport on the Hudson River. These groups are also monitoring a proposed crude oil pipeline (the Pilgrim Pipeline) along the New York State Thruway right of way.
A consortium of environmental groups is sponsoring a Stop Oil Trains Week of Action beginning July 6 (the anniversary of the Lac-Megantic disaster). Demonstrations and other events are planned in areas where oil is shipped by rail, to raise awareness and put pressure on government officials and agencies.
Susan Hellauer is a Bronx native and Nyack resident. She has been a volunteer with Nyack Community Ambulance Corps since 2001, and now serves as board member and Corps secretary. She teaches music and writing at Queens College and is a member of the vocal ensemble Anonymous 4.
Press Release from Riverkeeper New York [Editor: This from our contact in Albany: “New York State rescinds the Global expansion NegDec (aka, FONSI) and declares the application incomplete. Cites air issues, spill response issues, potential “significant adverse impacts on the environment”, and EPA concerns. Letter from the State attached.” – RS]
Riverkeeper Responds to Decision Regarding Albany Oil Terminal Expansion
For Immediate Release: May 21, 2015
Contact: Leah Rae, Riverkeeper
914-478-4501, ext. 238
Riverkeeper applauds the decision by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation regarding the proposed expansion of Global Companies’ rail-to-barge transfer terminal at in Albany, which would facilitate the transport of heavy “tar sands” crude oil. Riverkeeper calls on the state to follow through on what they’ve begun today and promptly issue a “positive declaration” requiring an environmental impact statement.
“It is good for New York State that the DEC came to a proper decision in one of the most important environmental matters facing the state. We look forward to participating with the state on a full public safety and environmental review that is robust and protective of our communities and our waterways.”
The shipment of tar sands crude oil would pose a whole new level of risk to the Hudson River. In the event of a spill, the toxic, sinking crude would mix into the water column and be unrecoverable.
A lawsuit filed by Riverkeeper and other groups in June 2014 challenged the DEC’s decision not to require an environmental impact statement. Riverkeeper had reminded the DEC that state law required an environmental impact statement on the proposal due to the significant environmental and public safety impacts, ranging from air pollutants to the increased risk of fire and explosion in downtown Albany. The DEC’s own Environmental Justice Policy requires that nearby communities be consulted and informed about proposals that may affect them so that those communities can be meaningfully involved in their review.