Category Archives: Rail accidents

Earthjustice map: Crude-by-rail Across America

Repost from Earthjustice.org
[Editor: I’m reposting this map today – it was recently updated and still highly relevant.  Earthjustice’s map shows Major Crude-by-Rail Accidents since 2012 (Red Symbols) and communities opposing Crude-by-Rail (Green Symbols).  – RS]

More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents in 2013, than was spilled in the nearly four decades since the federal government began collecting data on such spills.

Since late 2012, as hydraulic fracturing and tar sands drilling created a glut of oil, the industry has scrambled to transport the fossil fuel from drill sites to the east and west coasts, where it can potentially be shipped overseas to more lucrative markets.

The increase in oil rail traffic, however, has not been matched with increased regulatory scrutiny. Oil trains are not subject to the same strict routing requirements placed on other hazardous materials; trains carrying explosive crude are permitted to pass directly through cities—with tragic results. A train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic on July 6, 2013, killing 47 people in the small community.

In the absence of more protective regulations, communities across the country are beginning to take matters in their own hands.

Legal Cases

Earthjustice represents groups across the country, fighting for protections from crude-by-rail:

FAQs: About Crude-By-Rail

Q. What are DOT-111s?

DOT-111s are rail cars designed to carry liquids, including crude oil, and have been in service in North America for several decades. They are prone to punctures, oil spills, fires and explosions and lack safety features required for shipping other poisonous and toxic liquids. As crude production in the United States has surged exponentially in recent years, these outdated rail cars have been used to transport the crude oil throughout the country.

The U.S. and Canadian government recognized decades ago that the DOT-111s were unsafe for carrying hazardous materials, finding that the chance of a “breach” (i.e., loss of contents, potentially leading to an explosion) is over 50% in some derailment scenarios.

U.S. and Canadian safety investigators have repeatedly found that DOT-111s are unsafe and recommended that they not be used for explosive or hazardous materials, including crude oil; however, the U.S. government’s proposal to phase out these rail cars fails to take sufficient or immediate action to protect the public.

Q. What is Bakken crude oil?

Bakken crude refers to oil from the Bakken shale formation which is primarily in North Dakota, where production has skyrocketed in recent years due to the availability of newer hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) techniques. The increase in the nation’s output of crude oil in 2013, mostly attributable to Bakken production, was the largest in the nation’s history.

Bakken crude is highly flammable, much more so than some crude oils. Today, Bakken crude moves in “unit trains” of up to 120 rail cars, as long as a mile and a half, often made up of unsafe DOT-111s.

Q. Are there alternative tank cars available?

Transporting Bakken crude by rail is risky under the best of scenarios because of its flammability. But legacy DOT-111s represent the worst possible option. All new tank cars built since October 2011 have additional some safety features that reduce the risk of spilled oil by 75%. Even so, safety investigators, the Department of Transportation, and the railroad industry believe tank cars need to be made even safer. Some companies are already producing the next-generation rail cars that are 85% more crashworthy than the DOT 111s. Petitioners support the safest alternatives available, and expect that the ongoing rulemaking process will phase out all unsafe cars.

In the meantime, an emergency prohibition on shipping Bakken crude in DOT-111s—which virtually everyone acknowledges is unreasonably dangerous—is required immediately. (Read about the formal legal petition filed on July 15, 2014.)

Q. What steps have U.S. and Canadian governments taken?

The U.S. government recognizes that Bakken crude oil should not be shipped in DOT 111 tank cars due to the risks, but has done shockingly little to limit their use.

In May 2014, the DOT issued a safety alert recommending—but not requiring—shippers to use the safest tank cars in their fleets for shipments of Bakken crude and to avoid using DOT 111 cars. Canada, in contrast, responded to the Lac Mégantic disaster with more robust action. It required the immediate phase-out of some DOT-111s, a longer phase-out of the remainder, and the railroads imposed a surcharge on their use to ship crude oil in the meantime.

In the absence of similar standards in the U.S., the inevitable result will be that newer, safer cars will be used to ship crude in Canada—while the U.S. fleet will end up with the most dangerous tank cars.

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LETTER OF OPPOSITION: Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna

By Roger Straw, March 31, 2016

This morning, Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna sent the Benicia City Council this letter of opposition to Valero’s oil trains project.

SIGNIFICANT EXCERPT:

The EIR identifies that trains accessing the project would traverse Sacramento, including the heavily populated downtown area that I represent. It would cross numerous creeks and rivers, and run immediately adjacent to and through vulnerable residential neighborhoods. A rail accident resulting in oil spills, fire or a toxic explosion could have disastrous life safety, health, environmental and economic consequences. For these reasons, I believe an increase in oil train traffic from this project poses an unacceptable risk to Sacramento County residents and the environment.

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Hazards that enabled the Weyauwega train disaster 20 years ago still exist

Repost from the Wisconsin Gazette

Hazards that enabled the Weyauwega train disaster 20 years ago still exist

By Eric Hansen, March 3, 2016
The Weyauwega train derailment occurred on March 4, 1996, forcing the evacuation of 2,000 people who had to leave their pets behind. —PHOTO: Courtesy
The Weyauwega train derailment occurred on March 4, 1996, forcing the evacuation of 2,000 people who had to leave their pets behind. —PHOTO: Courtesy

A ferocious explosion and fireball followed a Wisconsin Central train wreck in the frigid predawn hours of March 4, 1996, in Weyauwega, Wisconsin. Two thousand citizens, many fleeing without their pets or medications, evacuated for 18 days as the fires burned.

Authorities feared additional explosions that would catapult shrapnel a mile or more from the derailed propane tank cars. Gas lines were shut off; water pipes froze in unheated houses.

Four days after the initial explosion, Wisconsin National Guard armored personnel carriers transported residents into the danger zone to rescue their pets. Wearing helmets and flak jackets, the evacuees dashed into their abandoned homes to retrieve hungry dogs, cats and parakeets.

Ever so slowly, specialists drained the railroad tank cars of their volatile cargo and Weyauwega pulled back from the brink. Federal investigators blamed a cracked rail and deficient track maintenance for the derailment.

March 4, 2016 is the 20th anniversary of the Weyauwega catastrophe. Unfortunately, railroad track failures remain a concern today — a concern greatly magnified by massive increases in explosive crude oil train traffic in recent years.

Wisconsin, now one of the busiest routes in the nation for this dangerous cargo, is part of a nationwide surge. In 2008, railroads carried 9,500 tank carloads of crude oil in the United States. By 2013, that number had risen to 407,761.

Connect the dots on the systemic danger the oil trains bring — and the details of the Weyauwega incident — and a reasonable citizen would question whether a Weyauwega scale disaster, or worse, is looming.

Key points: highly explosive crude oil from North Dakota is traveling in tank cars that are aging and were never designed with this kind of volatile cargo in mind. In addition, the sheer weight of mile-long oil trains stresses railroad tracks and aging bridges.

Those concerns grew when a Canadian government investigation traced the path of an oil train that exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013, killing 47 people.. The train had traveled through Wisconsin and Milwaukee on Canadian Pacific tracks before exploding in Quebec.

As knowledge of the dangers of oil train traffic spread, something else became clear: a lack of transparency on the part of the railroads. Milwaukee citizens, local elected officials and journalists sought to obtain safety inspection reports for the corroded, century-old, 1st St. railroad bridge.

Canadian Pacific railroad officials refused to share the inspection reports for half a year. Federal Railroad Administration director Sarah Feinberg announced a new program to obtain bridge safety reports on Feb. 19, 2016, indicating some progress.

But bridge inspection reports are only the tip of the iceberg. Railroads are not sharing information on what levels of insurance they carry, their worst-case accident scenario plans or how they make critical routing decisions that bring oil trains through densely populated areas.

Any illusion that federal regulators are exercising effective due diligence on oil train traffic faded when the Department of Transportation released an audit of the FRA on Feb. 26, 2016.
That report’s opening words cite the Lac Megantic disaster and the vast increase in crude oil train traffic. However, the audit summarizes FRA’s overview of oil train traffic as dysfunctional and lacking analysis on the impact to towns, cities and major population areas. It also notes a lack of criminal penalties for safety violations.

When citizens push, governments move into action. Insist that your elected representatives take effective action to protect our communities from dangerous crude oil train traffic.

Outdoor writer Eric Hansen is a member of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety – Milwaukee Area. He will be one of the presenters at “Your Right to Know – Oil Train Risks to Metro Milwaukee”, a March 12 forum hosted by the League of Women Voters. For more information, see lwvmilwaukee.org
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