EDITORIAL: Four explosive derailments in a month – how much longer?

By Roger Straw, Benicia Independent Editor, March 6, 2015

Yesterday afternoon, a multitude of news flashes broke out telling of yet another oil train derailment with fiery explosions, this time right alongside the Mississippi River outside Galena, Illinois.  The oil and rail industries escaped with another close call – no one was injured or killed this time and – so far – no reports of crude oil in the waters of the mighty Mississip.

The Galena accident is the fourth major derailment with hazmat fire in recent weeks!  (Dubuque, Iowa [2/4]; Gogama, Ontario [2/14]; Mount Carbon, West Virginia [2/16]; and Galena, Illinois [3/5]).  (LATER: now there have been five: a second derailment and explosion in  Gogama Ontario, [on 3/7], just 23 miles from the 2/14 fire.  – Editor)

There WILL be more.  The question everyone is asking: whose lives are at risk right now in schools and hospitals, commercial centers, apartment complexes and homes in the mile-wide evacuation zones along the rails that crisscross the country?  If Valero’s Benicia refinery is granted a permit and hires Union Pacific to run oil trains over the Sierra and across the state of California to Benicia, whose cozy little town uprail from here will be host to the next “Big One?”  Or if we’re “lucky,” what California wilderness will be the next to endure the foul spills and the consuming fires of an explosive oil train crash?

And who will pay for lives and property lost, for infrastructure repairs and the massive cleanup?

Oddly perhaps, my thoughts turned gently this morning to those refinery executives who have invested so much time and energy in planning for and implementing the rail transport of North American oil – Bakken crude and tar-sands (diluted bitumen).  I’m trying to imagine what it must be like for these decent career employees to eagerly wake up to a good cup of coffee and the morning news … only to be jolted once again as their tv shows video of yet another horrific oil train explosion.  It must be disheartening.  How, with every news outlet all across the U.S. paying attention to the need for safer tank cars with stabilized contents (and more) – how difficult for oil industry execs to begin to realize the folly of their plans.  It must be like learning there’s no Santa Claus.  Or like a nation having to decide to back out of a Vietnam war.  It can’t be easy.  But I dare to hope that some executive somewhere is going to make a decision soon: this has to stop.  He or she can swallow that cup of coffee, take a deep breath, and lead the way.  No more.  Not here.  Not me.  Not our company.

I wonder, too, about those who govern.  Why should our officials continue to allow the use of those old failing rails, aging bridges and dangerous tank cars to carry volatile chemicals today?  How much longer until our local, state and federal leaders call an end to this dangerous and polluting practice?  When will they stop trying to fix the system with minor safety upgrades and call a moratorium until the whole thing is worked out to protect the public’s health and safety?

What started out here in Benicia in early 2013 as a small, alert group of us who were concerned for the earth; an effort to take no part locally in the stripping of lands and environments in Alberta Canada and Montana and the Dakotas; and an understanding of the facts indicating the certain increase in toxic emissions affecting our air and water if Valero would move to crude by rail … these early concerns of ours were “blown away” (as it were), by the explosions, by the frightening and repeated demonstrations of the incredible risks of transporting volatile North American crude oil by rail and by the lack of adequate safeguards of a rail industry that cannot be controlled locally or regionally.

Our federal regulators MUST stand up to the industries and put an immediate stop to these bomb trains.  Until new regulations are in place to stabilize the oil before it is loaded, and until a totally new design for safer tank cars is approved and manufactured, and until the infrastructure that carries those new cars is upgraded, we should not have to live with the deadly risk.

Our resources would be better spent during a moratorium on crude by rail funding a massive increase in investment in clean energy.  Someone needs to put serious effort into planning a 5 or 10 year phase-out of fossil fuels.  Ok, 20.  It would be cataclysmic to just STOP the flow of oil and gasoline.  Even so, I think we’d survive it.  Someone should think it through carefully, and lay it out in steps that lead surely and safely away from crude oil … by rail or by any other means.

– Benicia Independent Editor, Roger Straw