Oil trains in the Twin Cities: The fire next time

Photo of BNSF oil train by Joshua Putnam, published under Creative Commons license.

Photo of BNSF oil train by Joshua Putnam, published under Creative Commons license.

Last week’s news brought more oil train derailments and explosions. Not here, not yet, but it’s just a matter of time. The Department of Transportation predicted last July that we’ll see an average of 10 derailments a year of crude oil and ethanol-carrying trains, with $4.5 billion in damages over the next two decades — if we’re lucky. If we’re unlucky, one of those derailments could come in a major metropolitan area, with a death toll of up to 200 people and single-incident damages of $6 billion. Concern over oil train safety is driving a series of Twin Cities community meetings on the oil trains running through our community right now. Tonight — Tuesday, March 24 — Representatives Raymond Dehn, Mike Frieberg and Frank Hornstein and Senator Bobby Joe Champion will hold a town meeting at the Theodore Wirth Chalet (1301 Theodore Wirth Parkway) from 6-7:30 p.m.

The federal Department of Transportation predictions are based on increased safety from newer, safer tanker cars — but the derailment and explosion near Galena, Illinois this month involved “safer” tanker cars. They split open and burned for days. The Star Tribune reported:

“But 1232 standard cars [the newer, “safer” model] have split open in three other accidents in the past year, including one in West Virginia last month. That train was carrying 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude when it derailed, shooting fireballs into the sky, leaking oil into a waterway and burning down a house. The home’s owner was treated for smoke inhalation, but no one else was injured.”

A February derailment and fire in West Virginia also involved the “newer, safer” railroad cars. NPR reported:

“Last night brought more fireballs shooting up from the crude oil spilled when a group of tanker cars derailed. The train wreck occurred along the Kanawha River in West Virginia. Hundreds of residents have been evacuated from their homes. Investigators have not yet determined what caused the derailment, but it and other ones like it are raising concerns about newer tank cars that were believed to be safer than older models. … the tank cars that went up in flames Monday in West Virginia are not the much-maligned DOT-111s, the type of tank cars that exploded in the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec, in 2013 killing 47 people. Now the tank cars in Monday’s fiery derailment are CPC 1232s, a type that is designed to be much stronger.”

According to Associated Press, the DOT report found that

“about 16 million Americans live within a half-kilometer of one of the lines. Such proximity is equivalent to the zone of destruction left by a July 2013 oil train explosion that killed 47 people and leveled much of downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, the analysis said.”

Governor Mark Dayton is pushing for improved rail safety and asking the feds for a full environmental study of a track that could send “high hazard” trains through Minneapolis and the northern suburbs.

Besides the danger of explosions in cities, train derailments and spills affect waterways all along their routes. A March 7 derailment in rural Ontario (one of three in a month) spilled oil into local rivers, as well as triggering a warning to local residents to stay indoors to avoid smoke inhalation from the fire.

The Washington Post reported that oil train derailments and explosions “shattered all records” last year.

For more background, see my previous posts:

For continuing updates on MN oil train issues, follow Sally Jo Sorensen’s series on investments by North Dakota energy interests (and those who transport their products) in Minnesota politics:

CORRECTION: It’s Senator (not Representative) Bobby Joe Champion.

Also – great Q&A from city of Crystal here.

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1 Comment

Filed under environment

One response to “Oil trains in the Twin Cities: The fire next time

  1. Pingback: Friday catch-up: Explosive trains, polluted wells, sign rebellion | News Day

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