Oil trains seen as ‘mile-long bombs’

A runaway train carrying Bakken formation crude oil derailed last year on July 6. The resulting explosion killed 47 people and demolished the town center of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada.

The severity and frequency of crude oil train derailments since then has sparked a call for a week of protests this year beginning July 6, in observance of the anniversary of the Canadian disaster.

At least eight significant incidents involving crude-by-rail have taken place in the U.S. since 2013, resulting in over one million gallons of oil spilled — more than in the previous 38 years combined. (earthfix.opb.org)

Since Lac-Mégantic, fiery derailments of oil trains have occurred in the Canadian province of New Brunswick as well as in Alabama, North Dakota and most recently Lynchburg, Va. Major derailments of crude trains not involving explosions took place in Philadelphia, outside Albany, N.Y., and most recently in Greeley, Colo., on May 12.

These trains carry crude from shale formations in North Dakota, Colorado and Texas. With over 100 cars, each carrying 30,000 gallons or more of highly volatile oil, they have been described as “mile-long bombs.”

They roll through many major U.S. cities around the clock while most residents remain unaware of the imminent danger. A CSX train derailment in Philadelphia this January happened near hospitals, universities and a major residential area and within sight of the city’s business district.

In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that crude oil from the North Dakota Bakken formation contains a high content of combustible gas, making it more volatile than most traditional light crude. (thinkprogress.org)

The WSJ study tested for vapor pressure — oil’s tendency to evaporate and emit combustible gases. Crude from shale formations in North Dakota and Texas measured vapor pressure readings of between 8 to 12 PSI [pounds per square inch] compared to 3.33 PSI for Gulf of Mexico oil and 4.8 PSI for oil from Iraq.

Regulators from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also took into consideration that chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process may contribute to the combustible nature of shale crude.

With more crude being produced in North Dakota, transport by rail from that area has increased dramatically. The amount carried by major U.S. freight railroads increased by 75 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the American Association of Railroads. (Insideenergy.org, May 12)

Most of the railcars involved in crude-train explosions are class DOT-111, normally used to transport agricultural commodities. Distinguished by their black bullet shapes, these cars are rupture-prone and not designed to carry volatile chemicals.

Efforts to phase out all class DOT-111s or to refit them have met resistance from the energy industry, which owns the tankers and would have to foot the bill to replace them or make them stronger. Like the fracking process itself, trains carrying shale oil are not regulated or subject to strict routing requirements of the kind placed on railcars transporting other hazardous materials.

Public pressure is mounting to ban or at least redirect rail transport of shale oil.

In June, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads to alert states when running trains carrying oil from North Dakota. However, the order does not require the sharing of detailed information on the volatility of the crude or informing the public when bomb-trains run through communities. A number of states have signed agreements pushed by the railroads to shield this information from the public.

After labeling the transport of crude oil by train “an imminent hazard,” the Transportation Department on May 7 required railroad companies to notify local emergency responders when shipping crude through their states. Yet most fire departments are ill-equipped to handle the explosions or spills likely to occur.

The Transportation Department requires public notification of trains carrying more than one million gallons of Bakken crude, but not volatile crude from other shale formations. While urging shippers to stop using DOT-111 cars, it stopped short of mandating this.

After residents in St. Louis who live near Union Pacific rail lines organized, crude trains were banned from running through that city in June. Stopping the rail shipment of shale-crude may be an uphill fight, but the example from St. Louis, where organizers went door-to-door to raise community awareness, shows it can be done.