Oil Trains Are The Time Bombs On America's Rails
A large percentage of oil trains consists of an older model that the NTSB publicly deemed an “unacceptable public risk” over a year ago. So why are they still on American railroad tracks?
As flames are still burning at the site of an oil train derailment in West Virginia and hundreds of people nearby remain evacuated, a spotlight is being shone on what amounts to a moving trans-continent pipeline that few people know drags hundreds of million barrels of crude oil annually past their homes, often on aging infrastructure and admittedly-deficient equipment.
The train tipped on Monday, sending 3 million gallons of Texas tea gurgling into the local environment, launching “pillars of flame” into the heavens, and burning down a nearby home, the second such incident so far in 2015. Another train caught on fire in Iowa just weeks ago, part of a transportation system whose use has skyrocketed in recent years, with some 759,000 barrels moved a day in the first part of 2014.
That’s a peak amount—“nearly 16,000 carloads per week” of crude-filled freight trains snaking their way through towns, cities, and fragile environmental ecosystems. Some experts put the total at 500,000 carloads last year, not including another 300,000 carloads of just-as-dangerous ethanol.
In 2014, the U.S. saw a record number of what industry experts call “unintentional releases.” That’s accidental oil spills to the layman—186 of them. That means a train-related oil spill happened once every two days last year. In contrast, between 1975 and 2012, America averaged just 25 a year.
Of those 186 incidents, three were derailments, and seven resulted in evacuation, fire, or led to the loss of more than 120 gallons.
There are, of course, stringent safety regulations in place, right? Well, yes. But a large percentage of the trains, which can be up to 100 cars long, consist of older model DOT-111 tanks, an easy-to-puncture iteration the National Transportation Safety Board publicly deemed an “unacceptable public risk” over a year ago.
This was the model involved in the Lac-Mégantic disaster, in which an oil train traveling from North Dakota, through Chicago, and up into Canada derailed in the Quebec township and exploded, killing more than 42 people and all but destroying the entire town in July 2013.
A wrongful-death settlement of $200 million in the Lac-Mégantic disaster was finally reached last month, with the court finding, among other things, that the railways were negligent for their use of the DOT-111 tanks.
Notice a theme?
The tank cars involved in Monday’s accident were, luckily, not the old 111s, but instead newer, safer Association of American Railroads Casualty Prevention Circular-1232-compliant ones. This model features thicker tank steel, skid and rollover protection, and other safety measures, based on an updated design adopted in October 2011.
Of the 171,000 DOT-111s that hustle hazmat around our nation, industry insiders report only about 17 percent meet the CPC-1232 guidelines.
With a 55,286-car manufacturer backlog of the safer models that could take two years to fill, there’s plenty of time for accidents involving the older models.
There is a bill in Washington that would, among other things, mandate cars hauling crude be upgraded to the safer spec. Which, as we saw this week, still explode just fine.
There are also upgrades that can be made to the older models, to improve safety, at a cost of around $20,000 to $40,000 per car.
No matter how you shake it, this isn’t going to be a cheap process for rail lines. But in a multibillion-dollar industry, how much of an onus is it, really, when compared to public safety?
With so much of the fleet aging, there are concerns being raised on the carrier side that that proposed update to railway safety requirements, currently before the White House, could be pushed through in light of this most recent disaster. This could lead to many of the old train cars being forced into retirement before their replacements are ready.
The slack would have to be picked up by other means, such as trucking, which is less safe than the railways and now undertakes 4 percent of our crude transportation, and boats, such as tankers and barges, which are safer than railways and already manage 23 percent of our oil. The rest—70 percent of all U.S. crude—is moved via pipeline.
Look at those numbers again real quick.
That means that trains only transport some 3 percent of our crude oil, although they handle a much higher percentage of fracked material from North Dakota. Even so, doesn’t that seem like a relatively small amount pegged to what has been proven to be potentially catastrophic human and environmental tolls?
The real bottom line is that, in dealing with making sure our petroleum-addicted society gets our fuel fix, there ultimately aren’t very many really, truly good options.
When was the last time a wind turbine or solar panel exploded?