Bomb Trains

The Trump Admin’s Misleading Justifications for Repealing This Oil Train Safety Rule

Scrabble board spelling 'deception,' 'donor,'profit,' and 'fail'

On December 4, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it would repeal a critical safety regulation for modern braking systems on the same oil trains which have derailed, spilled oil, caught fire, exploded, and even killed dozens in multiple high profile accidents in recent years. 

The regulation, released by the DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in mid 2015, required that oil trains have modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems by 2021. However, in the latest iteration of its review process for this rule, the DOT is now doing an about-face.

National Academy Study Touts Oil-by-Rail Safety But Supports Weakening Regulations

national academy of sciences sign in Washington, D.C.

A new study by the National Academy of Sciences concludes that the rail industry should do more to improve the safety of transporting oil and ethanol by rail, which includes addressing track safety and rail tank cars. Both of these are well-known safety issues.

However, the study, “Safely Transporting Hazardous Liquids and Gases in a Changing U.S. Energy Landscape,” also cites a separate NAS study “A Review of the Department of Transportation Plan for Analyzing and Testing Electronically Controlled Pneumatic Brakes” and notes that after reviewing available data, the researchers were unable to “make a conclusive statement” on the safety technology known as electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes.* This is where things get interesting.

American Petroleum Institute Failed to Respond to Concerns of Oil Train Safety

American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard

On July 29, 2013 Thomas J. Herrmann of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) wrote a letter to Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute (API). The letter was in response to the oil train disaster that occurred earlier that month in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people and reduced the downtown to a vacant lot (and it remains so over four years later).

Herrmann was writing to Gerard because the oil tank cars hauled by trains are actually owned or leased by members of the American Petroleum Institute, not by rail companies.

Senator Backed by Rail Companies Introduces New Bill That Would De-Regulate Rail Industry

Locomotive

A new bill by one of the rail industry’s favorite senators looks to change how the industry is regulated to allow “market forces to improve rail safety.” In June, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who happens to chair the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee, introduced the Railroad Advancement of Innovation and Leadership with Safety (RAILS) Act.

In essence, the bill seeks to shift the rail industry toward a self-regulatory — and more difficult to enforce — approach to safety known as “performance-based regulation,” an effort first reported by DeSmog after a Congressional hearing in May.

“We Got Lucky” - Four Years After Lac-Megantic, Another Oil Train Accident

We were very lucky in this instance,” Plainfield Fire Chief David Riddle said. “There was no fire, nobody got hurt by the grace of God.”

As the residents of Lac-Megantic were preparing to acknowledge the 4th anniversary of the oil train disaster that leveled and poisoned their downtown and killed 47 people, residents of Plainfield, Illinois were happy to just be complaining about the odor of spilled oil after a train pulling 115 tank cars of Canadian crude oil derailed near their neighborhood.

Regulators Helped Oil-by-Rail Company Avoid Environmental Review, California Court Rules

Oil train cars

This week, a court in California overturned a permit allowing the expansion of an oil-by-rail terminal near Bakersfield, California. The opinion from that court ruling reads like a case study for corporations looking to avoid the two biggest hurdles to getting such a project approved: environmental review and public notice and comment. 

Two Ethanol Trains Derail — and One Explodes — as Industry Embraces Riskier Practices

An ethanol unit train of DOT-111 tank cars.

On March 8, a train pulling 80 tank cars of ethanol derailed in Providence, Rhode Island. Luckily, no ethanol was spilled and no one was injured. However, activists immediately began calling for a halt to these “unit trains” of ethanol into and out of the city, noting the potential risks to the community. Unit trains are longer than average freight trains — often 100 cars or more — dedicated to carrying a single commodity, such as ethanol or crude oil. 

These risks were on display two days later when a unit train hauling 100 cars of ethanol derailed on a bridge in Graettinger, Iowa, approximately 160 miles from Des Moines. This time, 27 of the cars left the tracks. At least eight tank cars ruptured and caught fire, and three tank cars ended up in a creek beneath the bridge, releasing about 1,600 gallons of ethanol into the waterway. 

What Have We Learned From the Lac-Megantic Oil Train Disaster?

Lac-Megantic's downtown before the oil train disaster.

Brian Stevens first learned about the Lac-Megantic disaster — in which an unattended oil train caught fire and exploded, killing 47 people in the Quebec town — when he saw the news reports on TV.

Stevens is currently National Rail Director for Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, but he previously spent 16 years as an air-brake mechanic working on trains. At a recent conference in Ottawa examining lessons from the 2013 Lac-Megantic rail disaster, he recounted his reaction to seeing those initial scenes of destruction.  

That ain’t Canada, that can’t happen in North America because our brake systems won’t allow that,” he said when he eventually learned the images he was seeing were from Canada. “My heart sank … It was crushing.”  

LNG-By-Rail Hits Tracks in Alaska: What Are the Risks and Why the Secrecy?

Alaska Railroad train engine

For the first time ever, liquefied natural gas (LNG) has been shipped by railroad in the U.S., prompting concerns about risks of accidents and a lack of state or federal regulation for the new and hazardous cargo.

The 40-foot long cryogenic tanks owned by the Japanese company Hitachi, built to be transported by rail, truck, and barge, will each carry more than 7,000 gallons of natural gas, which has been chilled down to negative 260 degrees Fahrenheit, from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska. The company Alaska Railroad will do the carrying.

Ruling by Little-Known Federal Agency Paves Way for Communities to Say No to Oil-by-Rail

Oil tank care behind a fence with sign reading 'Think first'

The community of Benicia, [California,] in the crosshairs of history, made one of those decisions that will make a difference for the country. They stood up and said the safety of our communities matters.” 

That was Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor talking to The Sacramento Bee about the vote by the Benicia City Council to deny a new oil-by-rail facility that oil company Valero was seeking.

But that vote would have been meaningless if not for a recent decision on September 20 by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) that gave Benicia the legal authority to have some say over what happens within its borders. 

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