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Poorly Regulated, High-Speed 'Bomb Trains' Are One Crash Away from Devastating Towns in NYC Suburbs

Few residents of the city's bucolic 'burbs know of the huge risks whirring by at top speeds.
 
 
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Aftermath of the explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec.
Photo Credit: Sûreté du Québec

 
 
 
 

In the northern suburbs of New York City, endless strings of black tanker cars have become commonplace sightings at railroad crossings. They move along briskly with red hazmat placards reading “1267” — indicating crude oil — affixed to them. And while the rail and oil industries assure the public that these “virtual pipelines” are not much of a hazard, they're behemoths of kinetic energy flush with vast amounts of potential, explosive energy. An impact with a tanker car can spark a catastrophic detonation, annihilating whatever is nearby.

One such explosion occurred last summer in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, a tiny lakeside village of less than 6,000 people. On July 6, a 74-car train carrying Bakken formation crude oil ran away and derailed, resulting in a massive explosion of multiple tanker cars. The blast radius was more than a half mile in diameter. Forty-seven people were killed, and 30 buildings — about half the village's downtown — were leveled.

The Lac-Mégantic train was destined for the same New Brunswick refinery that is sometimes the destination of the oil that travels through the Hudson Valley counties of Rockland, Orange, Ulster, and Greene. Other trains in those Hudson Valley communities go to refineries along the U.S. East Coast.

In addition to explosions, there have been several significant spills across the U.S. in the past six years. Together, these events have spilled more than 3 million gallons of oil, polluting wetlands, aquifers and residential areas, and the spills are not always cleaned up adequately, if at all. What's even more unsettling is that the volume of crude oil moving through the country by rail increases unabated, raising the odds of more tragedies in the future.

In six short years, the number of rail cars loaded with crude oil has increased 40-fold, and industry analysts predict that the amount of oil-by-rail will quadruple over the next decade. Oil-by-rail shipments through densely populated areas including suburban New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Albany, NY, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland and Buffalo, are expected to increase significantly.

The shale oil boom has gained momentum with the rise in global oil prices. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, once considered expensive extraction technologies are now relatively affordable for the oil industry. But the boom has not been accompanied by a corresponding expansion and upgrade of our nation's transportation infrastructure. Oil production often comes from fields that don't have direct access to waterways and pipelines. Constructing new pipelines or converting the existing lines pose headaches for engineers, as this viscous, highly corrosive crude needs great amounts of pressure to push through systems without compromising them.

The rapid growth in Albany and the region to its south are of particular concern to local environmental groups. With little public awareness and input, the Port of Albany oil terminals are quietly expanding capacity to accept crude oil shipments by rail for transfer to river vessels. They are now permitted to handle 2.8 billion gallons per year, but the expansion means much more crude oil will travel through the Lower Hudson Valley.

The oil moving through the area is often the same Bakken crude from the shale formation located beneath Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Production rates are estimated to be nearly 500,000 barrels per day, and crude oil is shipped via rail to refineries located throughout Canada and the United States. While oil-by-rail has increased six-fold since 2011, according to American Association of Railroads, shipments from the Bakken region have jumped exponentially in that time. This great increase in oil-by-rail has been devastating to the environment. Fully loaded “unit trains” are made up of 75-100 tanker cars carrying about 30,000 gallons each, and last year alone, more than 1.15 million gallons of oil were spilled from them in rail accidents and derailments, which is greater than the four previous decades combined.

 
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