Another day, another ‘oil bomb’ train explosion


When is the government ever going to get it right on regulating those mile-long oil trains that are criss-crossing America these days, thanks to the fracking boom? You know the ones — the trains that activists call “oil bombs” because so many of them have exploded in the last two years, causing mass fatalities in Quebec and scaring the bejesus out of citizens from North Dakota to Alabama and everywhere in between.

Ever since the start of this crisis, activists have been pleading with Washington to update the regulations on the trains — especially banning the older cars known as DOT-111s that have been around for decades and which seem too prone to rupture and to explosions in a derailment. Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation finally got around to issuing some new regs — and not surprisingly, no one is happy. What’s amazing is that even a top official from the rail industry — Norfolk Southern CEO Charles W. “Wick” Moorman — doesn’t think that some of the rules go far enough, according to the Wall Street Journal:

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Transportation called for installing new braking systems on trains hauling more than 70 cars of crude oil by 2021. The final rule was issued last week and regulations will be phased in over several years. They also would require upgrades and other changes for tank cars hauling oil and other flammable liquids.

In some respects, the new tank car standards don’t go far enough, Mr. Moorman said. For instance, they require thermal wraps that could prevent a tank car from exploding for 100 minutes during a fire, versus an industry suggestion of 800 minutes. Though the industry generally agrees that hauling crude oil in older tank cars isn’t safe, the new rules allow shipments in any kind of tank car, provided it is in less than a block of 20 tank cars or fewer than 35 tank cars total, he said.

Of course, some of the rules are also too strict for Moorman’s liking — he is a businessman, after all. But here’s the real problem. We’ve learned in recent months that the biggest issue in shipping the oil fracked in North Dakota isn’t so much the rail cars as the oil itself. It’s just too flammable — so prone to bursting into flames that even newer rail cars aren’t preventing fires, especially if they’re not clad in an extra protective layer.

Yesterday, this happened:

A train that derailed and caught fire early Wednesday in rural North Dakota was hauling crude from the state’s oil patch, raising questions about whether new state standards intended to reduce the volatility of such shipments are sufficient.

The six tank cars that exploded into flames were a model slated to be phased out or retrofitted by 2020 under a federal rule announced last week.

It’s the fifth fiery accident since February involving that type of tank car, and industry critics responded to the latest with calls for them to be taken off the tracks immediately to prevent further fires.

The blaze was too hot for firefighters to even battle immediately. For that reason, North Dakota health officials were warning residents the only way they knew how — by telling them not to breathe in the highly toxic smoke from the fiery wreck.

There’s got to be a better way. These trains pass right through the heart of some of our most populated cities, including Philadelphia and Seattle. North Dakota, with help from the feds, needs to require the oil companies to more aggressively remove any flammable byproducts from its crude oil before it’s shipped out. And Washington also needs to go back to the drawing board and strengthen its rules, again, for tanker cars. We simply can’t have the equivalent of a bomb going off in America every couple of weeks.

Read more from the Wall Street Journal about the complaints from Norfolk Southern’s CEO about the feds’ new crude oil shipping rules:

Check out the latest on the oil-train explosion in Heimdal, North Dakota:

Learn more about the problems with shipping oil by rail in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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