Tag Archives: Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA)

Oil trains are too long and too heavy

Repost from The Oregonian
[Editor: A poignant opinion piece by an informed advocate.  Jared Margolis is an attorney working for the Center for Biological Diversity’s Portland office on issues related to energy and endangered species.  – RS]

Oil trains are too long and too heavy

By Jared Margolis, December 11, 2014
In this Sept. 16 file photo, rail cars containing oil sit on tracks south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Even to the most reasonable among us here in the Northwest, the lonely cry of the train whistle in the night is no longer a very comforting sound. You can’t help but wonder if it’s announcing the arrival of one of the 20 or so trains of up to 100 tanker cars that pass through the region in an average week, each one carrying up to 3 million gallons of explosive crude oil.

The exponential increase in risk posed by these trains has been highlighted by an unprecedented wave of accidents, including the explosive derailment in Quebec that incinerated part of a town and killed 47 people, and another in downtown Lynchburg, Va., that set the James River on fire, putting wildlife habitat and drinking water supplies at risk.

More crude oil was spilled by rail in 2013 — in excess of 1 million gallons — than between all the years from 1975 to 2012, according to an analysis of data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA).

Between 2008 and 2013 there was nearly a tenfold increase in crude-by-rail spills, from eight to 119.

Yet, as the amount of volatile crude oil hurtling through Oregon towns, cities and sensitive waterfront landscapes continues to increase, proposals to reduce the danger have failed to focus on what federal regulators acknowledge to be among the most important factors making crude oil trains more likely to derail than most trains: the length and weight of each train.

Instead, proposals from federal regulators have been limited to giving the rail industry five years to stop hauling explosive crude oil in the most puncture-prone tanker cars, which PHMSA has stated will actually lead to longer, heavier trains. The length and weight of tanker trains hauling crude oil has been singled out by regulators as one of the leading causes of several disastrous derailments in recent years. Those increased risks are demonstrated by the simple fact that while the number of overall train derailments is dropping, the number of oil train derailments is escalating.

PHMSA’s own analysis has determined oil trains “are longer, heavier in total, more challenging to control … [and] can be more prone to derailments when put in emergency braking.” That’s why I co-authored a legal petition, filed with PHMSA last month, asking the agency to establish rules limiting trains carrying crude oil and other hazardous liquids to 4,000 tons — the weight that the American Association of Railroads has determined to be a “no problem” train, considered much less likely to derail. This safety guideline is currently exceeded threefold by the 100-car crude oil trains rumbling through Oregon.

And the risks posed by these long, over-heavy oil trains are only expected to grow: Analysts project the amount of oil being transported to California refineries by train to increase more than tenfold by 2016, much of it moving through Oregon.

It only makes sense to take aggressive, reasonable precautions to protect people and wildlife against this escalating, unacceptable danger.

•  Jared Margolis is an attorney working for the Center for Biological Diversity’s Portland office on issues related to energy and endangered species.