Are Deadly Bomb Trains Rolling Through Your Neighborhood? Check the Interactive Map


A new interactive map released this week by Oil Change International highlights the alarming dangers of oil-by-rail to the nation's communities — and the map does not paint a pretty landscape. 

As the report points out, oil-by-rail is booming in both the literal and figurative sense. Seventy times as much oil-by-rail was moved last year compared to 2005, which was the very beginning of the hydraulic fracturing movement. Since that time, there have been several explosions and spills that have devastated towns and destroyed rivers.

The project's authors say that the oil industry is "out of control" and that regulators are unable to keep up with the industry’s rapid expansion. Because of this, public safety is disregarded in favor of fossil-fuel industry profits.

The report, Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude By Rail in North America tracks crude oil shipments as they move across the U.S. It says that some one million barrels of oil are shipped across the country on any given day, with about 135 trains of 100 or more tankers each carrying the crude. Industry analysts predict that the amount of oil-by-rail will expand by as much as five times over the next decade to match North American crude output. 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.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation (BNSF), owned by billionaire Warren Buffet, carries up to 70 percent of all the crude-by-rail traffic in North America. This railroad network alone expects to load one million barrels per day onto its network by the end of 2014. One of its trains derailed and exploded near Casselton, North Dakota, spilling more than 400,000 gallons.
“This is what the All of the Above Energy Strategy looks like — a runaway train headed straight for North American communities,” said Lorne Stockman, the author of the report.

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An impact with a tanker car can spark a catastrophic detonation, annihilating whatever is nearby. And as the volume of crude oil moving through the country by rail increases unabated, the odds of more tragedies grow exponentially. 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 town, which once relied on its tourism industry, faces many years of clean-up and rebuilding. 

In addition to explosions, there have been several significant spills across the U.S. in the past six years, including the recent catastrophic fire and spill near Lynchburg, Virginia. Together, these events have spilled more than three million gallons of oil, polluting wetlands, aquifers and residential areas, and the spills are not always cleaned up adequately, if at all. 

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.

Much of the oil moving through the U.S. is Bakken crude from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Montana, and North Dakota. Production rates are estimated to be nearly 600,000 barrels per day. Bakken crude is notable because of its particular instability due to high levels of gases and volatile organic compounds trapped in the mix.

"Large amounts of vapor pressure can split the tank, sink the roof and emit (a) flammable gas cloud," the Canadian Crude Quality Technical Association, an industry-sponsored research group, said in March. Also in question are the high amount of corrosives found in the fuel, which may impact the integrity of tanker cars. Oil producers in the Bakken region have reported large amounts of corrosion in tank cars and "high vapor pressure causing bubbling crude."

Not only is this crude uniquely explosive and corrosive, the DOT-111 rail cars that carry much of it have their own safety issues, including a tendency to rupture on impact, which makes them dangerously incompatible for the shipment of such a volatile cargo. Along with evidence that the DOT-111s are unsafe, oil companies regularly misclassify Bakken crude to make it appear less risky to the public than it actually is. The U.S. Department of Transportation has asked the oil and railroad industries to come up with voluntary changes in the way oil is transported to increase safety. But asking industries to self-regulate is not a reliable way to assure safety.

The DOT-111s currently make up about 70 percent of the oil-by-rail fleet. Newer, more safer cars are on the horizon, but rail companies requesting them are put on a waiting list, which is said to be two to three years long.  Right now, without these cars, Bakken crude would have no way to get to market. Some industry experts and government officials are calling for tanker retrofitting, which would be quicker. However, even with retrofits, there are no guarantees that DOT-111s would become impact-proof and impervious to the corrosive qualities of Bakken crude.

Stockman is hopeful that public education efforts will help turn the tide against oil-by-rail. 

“Communities are already waking up to the dangers of oil trains barreling through their backyards, with spills, explosions and derailments happening all too often," he said. "This report and online tool will help provide the critical information that’s been sorely missing in order to shine a light on what’s really going on, and to help stop the runaway train of crude-by-rail in its tracks before more damage is done.”

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