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As the residents of Lynchburg, Virginia, recently found out, there is a dangerous side to America's surging oil production: trains carry large cargoes of oil in often aging tank cars that set the stage for a fiery conflagration in the event of a derailment. Thankfully, no one died in Lynchburg, but in other places not everyone has been so lucky. While Virginia is investigating the cause of the Lynchburg crash the trains continue to roll raising the specter of other possible disasters. With refineries in the area and its large port facilities, Hampton Roads is often a destination for these potentially catastrophic cargoes. A lengthy piece in Politico looks at the growing danger. Here are highlights (read the entire piece):
Communities throughout the U.S. and Canada are waking up to the dark side of North America’s energy boom: Trains hauling crude oil are crashing, exploding and spilling in record numbers as a fast-growing industry outpaces the federal government’s oversight.In the 11 months since a runaway oil train derailed in the middle of a small town in Quebec, incinerating 47 people, the rolling virtual pipelines have unleashed crude oil into an Alabama swamp, forced more than 1,000 North Dakota residents to evacuate, dangled from a bridge in Philadelphia and smashed into an industrial building near Pittsburgh. The latest serious accident was April’s fiery crash in Lynchburg, Virginia, where even the mayor had been unaware oil was rolling through his city.These dangerous moments on the rails raise questions about the safety of transporting increasing amounts of oil in mile-long chains of tank cars, some of them decades old. Community leaders and activists from Oregon to Alabama to Albany call the trains a disaster waiting to happen — despite the Department of Transportation’s efforts to play catchup through a series of emergency orders, agreements with industry and proposed regulations being reviewed by the White House.A POLITICO analysis of federal data from more than 400 oil-train incidents since 1971 shows that a once-uncommon threat has escalated dramatically in the past five years:
- This year has already shattered the record for property damage from U.S. oil-train accidents, with a toll exceeding $10 million through mid-May — nearly triple the damage for all of 2013. The number of incidents so far this year — 70 — is also on pace to set a record.
- Almost every region of the U.S. has been touched by an oil-train incident. These episodes are spreading as more refineries take crude from production hot spots like North Dakota’s Bakken region and western Canada, while companies from California and Washington state to Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida build or expand terminals for moving oil from trains to barges, trucks or pipelines.“The boom in domestic oil production has turned many railways and small communities across our country into de facto oil pipelines, and the gold-rush-type phenomenon has unfortunately put our regulators behind the eight ball,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been pushing for stricter safety and disclosure rules. “It has become abundantly clear that there are a whole slew of freight rail safety measures that, while for many years have been moving through the gears of bureaucracy, must now be approved and implemented in haste.”
Like the oil boom itself, the surge in oil-train traffic has come much faster than anyone expected. Meanwhile, the trains face less onerous regulations than other ways of moving oil, including pipelines like TransCanada’s Keystone XL project.Keystone, which would carry oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, has waited more than five years for a permit from the Obama administration while provoking a national debate about climate change. But no White House approval was needed for all the trains carrying Canadian oil into the United States. In fact, freight railroads in the U.S. are considered “common carriers” for hazardous materials, meaning they can’t refuse to ship it as long as it meets federal guidelines.Meanwhile, the oil train business is primed to get bigger. Even TransCanada might start using rail to ship oil to the U.S. while waiting for Keystone to get the green light, CEO Russ Girling said in an interview in May — despite agreeing that trains are a costlier and potentially more dangerous option.“If anybody thinks that is a better idea, that’s delusional,” Girling said.