UPDATED 5/7/2014 – Remember that oil train that exploded into a giant fireball in Casselton, North Dakota on New Year’s Eve? No? How about the one that crashed and blew up an entire town in Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada last July 6, killing 46 people? These explosions should make us very worried, right here in the Twin Cities. Here’s why:
Reason #1: “About six oil trains, typically 100 tank cars each” roll through the Twin Cities each day, according to the Star Tribune. Google maps shows BNSF train tracks running along a long stretch of the Mississippi, along Highway 280, and right through downtown St. Paul. (They also run right along Interstate 94, which puts my house uncomfortably within range.)
Reason #2: These trains carry the most dangerous oil out there. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation contains several times the combustible gases as oil from elsewhere.” Here’s the map showing the routes for trains carrying oil from the Williston Basin/Bakken oil fields, as shown on the BNSF site.
Reason #3: The oil tanker cars are old. And they leak. Railroad officials told the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) they run a one in four risk of leaking if they derail. The Chicago Tribune reports, “The NTSB believes that older models of the type of tank car used to transport crude oil and ethanol, known as the DOT-111, are not safe to carry hazardous liquids.”
UPDATE 5/7/2014 from MPR report: “In an “emergency order” issued Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation said the railroads must disclose how much of the highly flammable Bakken crude is on board, the frequency of expected train traffic and the route the oil will travel.
“The order also requires railroads to provide state emergency officials at least one railroad contact and advises haulers to share information with emergency responders in the affected communities.”
Reason #4: The number of oil trains is growing. The Star Tribune reports:
“Crude oil shipments originating in the United States have grown from about 6,000 carloads in 2005 to roughly 400,000 in 2013 as the United States has tapped domestic petroleum sources. At the same time, the government has yet to issue new standards for safer tanker construction.”
Reason #5: U.S. agencies are moving too slowly on safety regulations. Canada has ordered the DOT-111 tank cars phased out or retrofitted within three years. The responsible (?) U.S. agencies — the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration — are working on it. With all deliberate speed. And looking for consensus with the railroad and oil industries. The Star Tribune quoted NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman:
“I have seen too much of a tombstone mentality,” she said. “If we do not have the body count to justify the cost of the rule to show the benefit, we have not been getting rules through.”
Do we need a body count to get movement on regulating the oil and rail industries to protect us?