Repost from OtherWords (in the Benicia Herald on 7/7/16)
To Stop ‘Bomb Trains,’ I Honeymooned in Jail
With one tiny loose bolt, oil trains can erupt into an inferno, scorching everything for miles.
By Daphne Wysham, July 6, 2016
It was a few days after my wedding. I was supposed to be honeymooning at a nearby winery with my newly minted husband, celebrating our unlikely marriage at age 55.
Instead, I was sitting on the railroad tracks in the pouring rain. Along with 20 other brave souls, some weeping, some singing, I was facing down a locomotive in a town — Vancouver, Washington — that many fear will be forced to accept the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the country.
Why would anyone do something like that?
Because a few short days before, we’d watched in horror as a mile-long train filled with Bakken crude derailed in Mosier, Oregon and burst into towering flames.
We call these oil trains “bomb trains” because we know, with one tiny loose bolt, they can erupt into an inferno, scorching everything for miles. It happened in Lac-Megantic, Canada in 2013. Forty-seven people were killed in a matter of minutes, the town leveled when a train’s brakes failed.
In the aftermath of the Mosier derailment, local fire chief Jim Appleton, who was originally unwilling to condemn oil trains, was beginning to sound more and more like one of us: “I think it’s insane” to ship oil by rail, he told a reporter. “Shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.”
And yet shareholder value is outweighing the lives and happiness of communities all over the world. I live in the “blast zone” less than a mile from tracks that ply this dangerous cargo here in the Pacific Northwest. And millions of people, most of them on the other side of the world, are already feeling the heat.
More bomb trains, after all, mean more climate change. Rising temperatures mean dangerous weather patterns, like the floods that recently killed hundreds in Pakistan and China.
Meanwhile, ExxonMobil, whose scientists knew as early as the 1960s that catastrophic climate change would ensue if they didn’t change course, has invested in climate denial in order to maximize their shareholder value, counting on us to not connect the dots.
I grew up in India. I can see the faces of friends and loved ones on Facebook enduring record heat and flooding there. So if the trains wouldn’t stop coming, I figured, I’d put my body on the line in Vancouver. If I went to jail, I hoped my husband would forgive me for skipping out on our first big date as newlyweds.
The riot police were beginning to gather, and the railroad’s private police were issuing their warnings while hundreds chanted nearby. Not wanting to lose valuables in jail, I gave my wallet, cell phone, and wedding ring to a friend.
Then they hauled us off, one by one, in plastic handcuffs like tiny angel’s wings behind each protestor’s back. They put the 13 women — as young as 21 and as old as 85 — in one cell and the eight men in the other.
Seven hours later, as we were released from our windowless cage into the beautiful summer evening, I felt an unspeakable gratitude to my cellmates and those who awaited us outside.
Should we go to trial, many of us will be arguing we did this out of necessity, in order to prevent a far greater looming evil — of being incinerated in our sleep, of doing nothing to stop this deadly fossil fuel cargo while hundreds of thousands of people die each year from floods, disease, malnutrition, and heat stress due to climate change.
Call me crazy, but we might just win this one. And in so doing, we’ll send a very strong message to the oil companies that threaten us all that they must end this madness.
“Whatever God May Bring”: Albany ‘Break Free’ Protest Against Fracking, Bomb Trains
By Zach Roberts • Tuesday, May 17, 2016 – 11:39
On May 14, thousands of people around the world joined together for marches, rallies and civil disobedience against dirty energy. While their specific causes may have ranged from stopping pipelines to preventing crude oil “bomb trains,” the unifying idea was to ‘break free’ from fossil fuels.
According to organizers, 2,000 people attended the Break Free Albany rally that featured speeches from different groups, such as Iris Marie Bloom of Protecting Our Waters.
As one of the final speakers at the rally she spoke about the Pilgrim Pipeline but in general the cause for the action, “We are all here to protect our climate, because the oil bomb trains are bad for climate, Bakken oil extraction is bad for climate… From the beginning — the cradle, the Bakken Shale, the tar sands — to the grave, Philadelphia refineries, other refineries, and the end use… we got to stop it all!”
Moving from Lincoln Park, the rally took to the streets in a planned march to the Port of Albany.
The first stop along the way was a low-income housing development which shared a back yard with a defacto “bomb train” parking lot. According to activists speaking at the protest the oil cars sit and idle for hours within yards of children’s bedrooms. The road that the marchers were standing on and blocking was also an oil transportation route used regularly by trucks to get to and from the port.
Carolyn McLaughlin, president of the Albany Common Council, demanded that people in Washington listen to the marchers:
“We have to make sure the black wall of environmental injustice does not return down here to Ezra Prentice… the people of Ezra Prentice and all along these tracks deserve better, we demand better, we will not take no for an answer.”
Moving parallel to the tracks, the march moved to its final destination, a road crossing that allowed the activists to set up a stage and prevent railroad cars from passing through. Music, dancing and speakers filled the small stage, along with an amplified audio set-up powered by a solar panel.
Finishing out the evening’s speakers was actor and activist James Cromwell who spoke to DeSmog:
“Even though we have a ban on fracking in New York, the governor and the legislators didn’t see fit to ban the use of fracked products. So now what we have is the build-out of hydrofracking infrastructure, pipelines, compressors, metering stations. This commits us for the next 30 to 40 years to fossil fuels. It cannot happen, we will not have a planet.”
To the march organizers’ surprise, the Albany police allowed the activists to stay long past their agreed upon permit — refusing to arrest anyone for occupying the tracks.
So the Break Free organizers decided to try to build an encampment. Immediately they set to work getting rope, tarps and other necessities like cinder blocks to make large tents for people to stay under as the weather forecast called for heavy rain.
The police allowed the now occupiers to build their tents with many warnings that any ‘structure’ would be taken down. 15-minute warnings expanded as organizers negotiated with police — but the police were standing firm.
Joking with one of the cops, I asked: “You’re just waiting until the rain starts to take the tents down… aren’t you?” The officer responded with a smirk, “Whatever God may bring.”
God brought torrential rain and wind.
And then the police swooped in. With activists singing and locking arms, the police aggressively, but with care not to harm anyone, ripped the tarps from their place and hauled them off in vehicles so that they couldn’t be used again.
Thankfully for the protesters, the rain slowed soon after, and conversation turned to figuring out next steps. After a time debating specifics, it was decided that they would stay and try to make it through the night without tents, laying on the railroad tracks with only cardboard and tarps to cover them from the weather.
By the time I left at 11pm, they were still there, sending out parties to gather supplies of dry clothing, food and whatever else they might need to make it through the night.
BOMB TRAINS – THE SCARIEST THREAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT
They’re explosive. Pervasive. And their movements are cloaked in secrecy. Their nickname? Bomb trains. And they roll through the heart of Chicago.
BY Ted C. Fishman, April 25, 2016 9:35 A.M.
They could not look more ominous. The long coal-black tubes announce themselves by their distinctive shape and color, their markings too small to read from the street. The 30,000-gallon tank cars roll, sometimes 100 at a time, in trains of up to one mile in length. Their cargo? Crude oil—as much as three million gallons per train. Nearly all of it is light sweet Bakken crude, a type that is particularly explosive. In whole, these trains constitute likely the biggest, heaviest, and longest combustibles to ever traverse America, and they do so routinely. More pass through Chicago than any other big metro area. Their blast potential has earned them a terrifying nickname: bomb trains.
Stand long enough at 18th and Wentworth, on the traffic bridge that separates the newer sections of Chinatown from the largely residential South Loop, and you will spot the tank cars wending their way across neighborhoods on the Near South and West Sides, past playgrounds, schoolyards, and row after row of houses. An estimated 40 of these trains cut through the metro area weekly. There’s no public information on exact routes or timetables; revealing their paths, the logic goes, might aid potential saboteurs, a real risk in an age of terrorism.
Until recently, crude on the rails was relatively rare. But since 2008, when Bakken oil began rolling out of newly active fields in the United States—North Dakota is the biggest producer—and toward Eastern refineries, the number of oil tank car shipments has grown 50-fold. That’s pushed the number of accidents up, too. According to U.S. government data, from 1975 to 2012, an average of 25 crude oil spills from tank cars occurred on the rails each year. In 2014, that number rose to 141. Most incidents are minor, such as small leaks. But in cases of a major derailment, the result can be catastrophic, even fatal (see “Terrifying Incidents,” below).
Chicago found that in the last three years there were 17 derailments of crude oil trains in North America significant enough to generate news coverage. In eight of them, the tank cars blew, sending fireballs hundreds of feet into the air, filling the sky with black mushroom clouds. In the most severe cases, the flames produced are so hot that firefighters almost inevitably choose to let them burn out, which can take days, rather than extinguish them. (The Wall Street Journal calculated that a single tank car of sweet crude carries the energy equivalent of two million sticks of dynamite.) Even when there are no explosions, the spills can wreak havoc on the environment: five of the 17 accidents resulted in the pollution of major waterways, affecting thousands of people across the continent.
Chicago is particularly vulnerable. As the Western Hemisphere’s busiest freight hub, the city has become a center for crude oil traffic, too. High volumes, combined with a densely populated urban setting, have watchdogs such as the Natural Resources Defense Council alarmed. Henry Henderson, the NRDC’s Midwest program director, sums up the threat this way: “Trains with highly explosive materials are traveling through the city on aging tracks in cars that are easily punctured, which can result in devastating explosions.”
Many of these trains cut through what were once industrial rail yards in the city and suburbs. Over the last 35 years, however, much of that property has turned into residential and commercial clusters. “You should assume that if you live in the Chicago area, near a railroad track, that there are trains carrying Bakken crude oil,” says Jim Healy, a member of the DuPage County Board.
Though Chicago has so far been spared a crude oil train crash, the potential of one presents a horrifying picture. One particular nightmare is emblazoned in the minds of first responders, and regulators. On July 6, 2013, a runaway crude oil train, which had been left unattended, sped through the center of the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. Sixty-three cars derailed. Forty-seven people were killed, some literally incinerated while they drank at a bar.
Emergency responders in the Chicago area say they are confident any derailment here could be managed before it reached neighborhood-destroying levels. “Crude is not the threat that everyone says it is,” says Gene Ryan, chief of planning for Cook County’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Ryan and a group of first responders looked closely at 29 major accidents across North America and found that “even though the crude is full of all kinds of volatile materials, the cars did not completely blow apart and hit homes,” he says.
But in a city as dense as Chicago, it takes only one freak incident to have a titanic effect on the urban landscape. Just last year, on March 5, on a stretch of track near Galena, Illinois, 21 BNSF Railway train cars carrying 630,000 gallons of Bakken crude derailed and tumbled down an embankment. Five of them burned for three days. At the time, James Joseph, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, told the Chicago Tribune: “We’re fortunate this occurred where it did, in a remote area, and there were no homes around it.”
Experts believe the train was likely headed for Chicago, 160 miles to the east.
Historically, oil in America moved from south (think Texas and Louisiana) to north mostly through pipelines, the safest conduits for it. When newly deployed technologies such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—opened access to sources of oil in North Dakota and elsewhere in the West, few pipelines were in place to move the crude to the refineries back east that could handle it. (A proposed pipeline for Bakken crude running from Stanley, North Dakota, to Patoka, Illinois, has faced political and jurisdictional challenges.) With limited alternatives, oil producers and refiners turned to railroads. In 2014, trains carried 11 percent of the nation’s crude oil.
So what paths do these tank cars take? The exact routes are state secrets. But assuming 40 trains, carrying three million gallons of crude oil each, pass through the Chicago area weekly, that means more than 17 million gallons roll through the city daily. It’s an inexact count, and the NRDC has continued to push to get accurate information. “A lot of people don’t know their residences are adjacent to hazardous cargo,” says Henderson. “The issue should be subject to public discussion, but the public has been cut off from it.”
Using freight maps and firsthand reporting, the West Coast environmental advocacy group Stand has assembled a national map of the most common crude oil train routes and created an interactive website that allows users to determine how far any U.S. location is from these routes. For example, according to the site, half of Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, home to 32,000 people and U.S. Cellular Field, falls squarely within a half-mile “evacuation zone,” established by the U.S. Department of Transportation for areas vulnerable to crude oil train explosions. Stretch that to the one-mile “impact zone” and you include the Illinois Institute of Technology, University of Illinois at Chicago, and Cook County Juvenile Court.
It’s not just Chicago proper that sees traffic from crude oil trains. They cut through Joliet, Naperville, Barrington, Aurora, and dozens of other suburbs. “I can look outside my office and see them passing through downtown,” says Tom Weisner, Aurora’s mayor. “About 120,000 tanker cars a year now come through our city.”
Last April, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered a maximum speed for crude oil trains of 40 miles an hour in populous areas. The majority of railroads run them 10 miles slower than that, an acknowledgment, in effect, that the trains aren’t invulnerable. Most often, it is a flawed track, wheel, or axle that leads to a derailment, which can then cause tank cars to rupture.
Bakken crude was first shipped using tank cars designed for nonhazardous materials and ill suited to its volatility. (Most tank cars are owned not by the railroads but by the oil producers and refiners, such as Valero Energy and Phillips 66, that ship crude.) Those first-generation tank cars, called DOT-111s, have almost all been subjected to new protections, including having their shells reinforced with steel a sixteenth of an inch thicker than used in earlier models. Federal regulations passed in 2015 mandate that by 2025 haulers must replace all cars with new models featuring even thicker steel shells and other safety measures.
Railroads know the dangers. In addition to the human and environmental costs, one terrible accident could put a railroad company out of business. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, which ran the train that devastated Lac-Mégantic, could only cover a fraction of its hundreds of millions of dollars in liabilities and went bankrupt.
The big railroads hauling crude in the United States and Canada have spent heavily on new technology to make their lines safer, including an Association of American Rails app called AskRail, which identifies the contents and location of rail cars carrying hazardous materials. What railroad companies cannot yet do is reroute trains away from the populous areas whose growth their lines once spurred. There simply isn’t the infrastructure in place to do so.
And while the American Association of Railroads reports that rail companies have spent $600 billion since 1980 improving their current routes, even well-maintained tracks remain vulnerable. Department of Transportation accident data shows that broken rails were the main cause of freight derailments from 2001 to 2010. What’s more, the Federal Rail Administration, the agency charged with overseeing the integrity of America’s tracks, says it can only monitor less than 1 percent of the federally regulated rail system annually due to a shortage of manpower.
“There’s a lackadaisical attitude among people, including officials, about infrastructure that is not up to the threats against it, even as the threats are manifesting,” says Henderson. “You saw that in Flint, Michigan, and in other places with drinking water. And now with crude oil trains, which deal with very serious materials moving [on a system] not adequate to protect people from mistakes.”
10 Terrifying incidents
With crude oil rail shipments growing 50-fold in the last eight years, the number of accidents has risen too. Below, 10 of the most damaging. —Katie Campbell
JULY 6, 2013
In the worst recent accident, 63 cars on a runaway train derailed in the heart of this Canadian town. The resulting blast and flames killed 47 residents and destroyed 30 buildings in the small downtown.
NOVEMBER 8, 2013
Outside this tiny Southern town, 25 cars spilled nearly 750,000 gallons of oil into surrounding wetlands, creating an environmental nightmare.
DECEMBER 30, 2013
Casselton, North Dakota
After two trains collided, 18 cars on the one carrying crude oil spilled nearly 400,000 gallons.
FEBRUARY 13, 2014
Enroute from Chicago, a train went off the track and crashed into a downtown industrail building.
APRIL 30, 2014
A train from Chicago derailed near a pedestrian waterfront area, sending three cars—and 30,000 gallons of oil—into the James River.
FEBRUARY 16, 2015
Mount Carbon, West Virginia
After 27 cars went off the track during a snowstorm and exploded, the fire burned for four days.
MARCH 5, 2015
A train likely headed to Chicago derailed on a remote stretch of track, sending cars down an embankment. Even though the cars had been reinforced with half an inch of steel, the fire burned for three days.
MARCH 7, 2015
Just one month after a derailment in the same area, five cars fell into the Makami River, leaking oil into waterways used by locals for drinking and fishing.
MAY 6, 2015
Heimdal, North Dakota
Five cars exploded and spilled nearly 60,000 gallons of oil. Fire crews from three nearby towns were called to help fight the blaze.
JULY 16, 2015
Twenty cars toppled from the track, with three spilling a total of 35,000 gallons of oil, forcing 30 people to evacuate.
New Oil Train Safety Regs Focus on Accident Response, Not Prevention
Long Phase-out of Hazardous Cars, Inadequate Speed Limits Leave Communities at Risk of Explosive Derailments
For Immediate Release, December 7, 2015
Contact: Jared Margolis, (802) 310-4054
WASHINGTON— A new transportation bill signed by President Obama includes provisions intended to improve the safety of oil trains, but leaves puncture-prone tank cars in service for years and fails to address the speed, length and weight of trains that experts point to as the leading causes of explosive derailments. The bill upgrades safety features on oil train tank cars and requires railroads to provide emergency responders with real-time information about when and where dangerous oil cargoes are being transported but doesn’t do enough to prevent oil train accidents, which have risen sharply in recent years.
“While these regulations improve our ability to prepare for oil train disasters they do virtually nothing to prevent them from ever occurring in the first place,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who focuses on the impacts of energy development on endangered species. “Until we dramatically reduce the speed and length of these bomb trains it’s only a matter of time before the next explosive derailment sends fireballs rolling through one of our communities.”
The new regulations will require all oil train tank cars to include fire-resistant ceramic coatings and protections for protruding top fittings. The final rule issued by federal regulators in May only required oil trains with 35 loaded oil tank cars or 20-car blocks of oil tank cars to implement the new standards, and would not have required the ceramic blankets or top fitting protections for all retrofitted cars.
But experts say even the protective measures included in the new transportation regulations signed into law on Friday will do little to prevent a spill if a train derails at speeds faster than 18 mph, and oil trains are permitted to travel at 40 mph to 50 mph. And the new regulations do not require the phase-out of dangerous puncture-prone tank cars to begin until 2018, and allows them to remain in service until 2029.
“It’s irresponsible to continue to allow these bomb trains to roll through the middle of our communities and across some our most pristine landscapes,” said Margolis. “We need to quit pretending we can make these dangerous trains safe and simply ban them altogether.”
Congress has directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to continue requiring notifications to states of train routes and frequencies so communities can better prepare to respond to train derailments, explosions and oil spills. However, the new regulations do nothing to remedy the track infrastructure problems, or the excessive length and weight of oil trains, cited as leading causes of derailments. Further, it remains unclear whether the public will have access to information about these hazards.
“Keeping information on oil trains from public scrutiny is outrageous, and only serves to protect the corporate interests that care little about the risk to the homes, schools and wild areas that these trains threaten,” said Margolis. “We need to keep these trains off the tracks and keep these dangerous fossil fuels in the ground, rather than keeping the public in the dark.”
The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly found that current tank cars are prone to puncture on impact, spilling oil and often triggering destructive fires and explosions. But federal regulators have ignored the safety board’s official recommendation to stop shipping crude oil in the hazardous tank cars. Recent derailments and explosions have made clear that even the newer tank cars, known as CPC-1232s, are not significantly safer, often puncturing at low speeds.
The recent surge in U.S. and Canadian oil production, much of it from Bakken shale and Alberta tar sands, has led to a more than 4,000 percent increase in crude oil shipped by rail since 2005, primarily in trains with as many as 120 oil cars that are more than 1.5 miles long. The result has been oil spills, destructive fires, and explosions when oil trains have derailed. More oil spilled in train accidents just in 2013 than in the 38 years from 1975 to 2012 combined.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.