The time to get rid of unsafe oil tanker cars is right now


There’s a crisis going on right now in this country with oil transportation. It’s happening because of the oil-fracking boom in North Dakota, mainly, and also to some extent because of the exploitation of the Canadian tar sands. Fossil fuel production has boomed — but in a region with no pipeline to transport the oil to refineries or for shipment abroad.  Since the region is also landlocked, the only solution is to ship the oil by rail.

As recently as five years ago, rail transport of crude oil barely took place. Now it’s exploded, and maintenance has not kept up. Like much of the rest of America’s aging infrastructure, the nation’s freight lines are old — some bridges were built in the 19th Century — and in disrepair, yet rarely inspected by government engineers. The tanker car that is used in most crude-oil trains — the DOT-111 — is badly outdated, prone to spills or worse in an accident because its shell is not strong enough. And, unlike crude oil that’s been shipped by rail in the past, experts have learned that the shipments from North Dakota are highly flammable, perhaps because of their chemical makeup and perhaps because of fracking chemicals.

This week, events are causing public officials to concede that we have a crisis on our hands. First, this happened:

A CSX freight train carrying crude oil derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia Wednesday afternoon around 2 p.m. according to local authorities, “causing extensive flames and dense black smoke” to reach into the air.

The City of Lynchburg said that between 12 and 14 crude oil tanker cars derailed next to the James River, though fortunately there have been no reported injuries. The cause “has not been determined” at this time, according to a statement posted on the city’s website.

WSET reporter James Gherardi estimated that the tankers were no more than 100 feet from river.

“You don’t often imagine the James River on fire,” said WSET anchor Len Stevens during his station’s live broadcast.

That was Wednesday; on Thursday, another CSX train, this one carrying coal instead of oil, jumped the tracks in Maryland. The string of mishaps, on top of the disaster that killed 47 people in Quebec last year and subsequent derailments in Alabama, North Dakota, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, have caused a critical mass of outrage:

On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for increased regulations on oil trains in the wake of the Lynchburg spill.

“In addition to steps that states like New York are taking, the federal government must overhaul the safety regulations, starting with taking DOT-111 trains off the rails now,” Cuomo said. “These trains travel through populated communities in upstate New York and we cannot wait for a tragic disaster in our state to act.”

The Virginia Sierra Club, too, spoke out against the incident, saying that though the derailment fortunately did not result in any injuries, “there are continuing threats to public health and the environment.” The Sierra Club warned earlier this month that an increase of oil train traffic in Virginia could result in environmental damage or drinking water contamination.

This week, the nation of Canada — where passions on this issue run much stronger because of the 47 people who perished in the Quebec accident — said there was no more time to wait, as they banned some 5,000 of the older DOT-111 model cars off their national railways. As officials in Canada pointed out, officials have known about safety risks for 20 years now, and yet nothing has been done.

And yet in the United States, there’s still no indication that the Obama administration is anywhere near taking action. That is beyond outrageous. If Canada can stand up for protecting public safety and the environment, so can we. There’s no point in waiting for an oil bomb to go off in Philly, or Albany, or Richmond, or anywhere else.

Read about Wednesday’s crude oil train derailment in Virginia:

Read the public reaction after two rail accidents in less than 24 hours:

Find out more about Canada’s ban on the older tanker cars:

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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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