Third Fiery Accident in Three Weeks Shows Need for Immediate New Federal Regulations

Repost from The Center for Biological Diversity

Center for Biological DiversityYet Another Oil Train Derails, Catches Fire, This Time in Illinois

Third Fiery Accident in Three Weeks Shows Need for Immediate Major Safety Upgrades for Shipments of Crude by Rail

GALENA, Ill.— An oil train transporting more than 100 cars of highly volatile crude oil derailed and caught fire today in northwest Illinois near the Mississippi River — the third explosive oil train accident in three weeks. Billowing columns of dark smoke and fireballs shooting hundreds of feet into the air were visible this afternoon as at least two tank cars caught fire. Early reports are that first responders had to pull back from the fire due to the heat and ongoing danger of more tank cars catching fire and exploding. The incident follows in close succession fiery oil train derailments in Ontario and West Virginia.

“The only thing more mind-boggling than three such accidents in three weeks is the continued lack of action by the Obama administration to protect us from these dangerous oil trains,” said Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The government has the authority to take immediate action to address this crisis — which puts homes, waters and wildlife at risk – and yet it has sat back and watched.”

The Center for Biological Diversity recently released a report on the danger of oil trains traveling tracks throughout the United States. Among the findings were that some 25 million people live within the one-mile “evacuation zone” of tracks carrying oil trains and that the trains pass through 34 wildlife refuges and critical habitat for 57 endangered species.

The Illinois accident joins a growing list of devastating oil train derailments over the past two years. There has been a more than 40-fold increase in crude oil transport by rail since 2008, but no significant upgrade in federal safety requirements. Oil transport has increased from virtually nothing in 2008 to more than 500,000 rail cars of oil in 2014. Billions of gallons of oil pass through towns and cities ill-equipped to respond to the kinds of explosions and spills that have been occurring. Millions of gallons of crude oil have been spilled into waterways.

Today’s derailment happened where the Galena River meets the Mississippi River. There are no reports of injuries or fatalities, or of drinking water intake closures, although there are communities in the area that draw water from the Mississippi. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe train included 103 tank cars transporting volatile crude oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.

Loaded oil trains on this particular line first must pass through densely populated areas such as Minneapolis-St. Paul and La-Crosse. The trains also pass through the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, about 50 miles upstream of the derailment site. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Mississippi River corridor “provides productive fish and wildlife habitat unmatched in the heart of America.”

“There are simply no excuses left for the Obama administration. The fact that these trains are still moving on the rails is a national travesty,” said Matteson. “The next explosive wreck — and there will be more, so long as nothing changes — may take lives, burn up a town or level a city business district, and pollute the drinking water of thousands of people. Enough is enough.”

A series of fiery oil-train derailments in the United States and Canada has resulted in life-threatening explosions and destructive oil spills. The worst was a derailment in Quebec in July 2013 that killed 47 people, forced the evacuation of 2,000 people, and incinerated portions of a popular tourist town.

Ethanol shipments by rail have also raised safety concerns. On Feb. 4, a train transporting ethanol derailed along the Mississippi River in Iowa, catching fire and sending an unknown amount of ethanol into the river.

In February the U.S. Department of Transportation sent new rules governing oil train safety to the White House for review, prior to public release. However, the proposed rules fail to require appropriate speed limitations, and it will be at least another two and a half years before the most dangerous tank cars are phased out of use for the most hazardous cargos. The oil and railroad industries have lobbied for weaker rules on tank car safety and brake requirements. The industries also want more time to comply with the new rules.

Yet, without regulations that will effectively prevent derailments and rupture of tank cars, oil trains will continue to threaten people, drinking water supplies and wildlife, including endangered species.

The Center has also petitioned for oil trains that include far fewer tank cars and for comprehensive oil spill response plans for railroads as well as other important federal reforms, and is also pushing to stop the expansion of projects that will facilitate further increases in crude by rail.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 825,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.