Bomb Trains

With Oil by Rail Poised for Comeback, Will Lack of Safety Regulations Mean 'Bomb Trains' Return too?

Gogama oil derailment and fire

Investors love a good comeback story and right now oil by rail seems to be a story they're pushing to justify investment in rail companies, especially Canadian ones.

But with little change in safety practices or regulations since the 2014 oil-by-rail boom, is the industry setting itself up to once again earn the nickname that rail workers gave oil trains — that is, will “bomb trains” make a comeback?

Washington Governor Inslee Rejects Major Oil-by-Rail Project

Vancouver, Washington port

On January 29, Washington Governor Jay Inslee rejected a permit required for Tesoro-Savage to build the Vancouver Energy oil-by-rail facility, the largest such project in the nation, at the Port of Vancouver, along the Washington-Oregon border. The governor explained the basis of his decision, which followed a several year long process, in a letter to the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council:

Rail Workers Acquitted in Trial on Deadly Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Disaster

Aerial view of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, after the oil train explosion and fires

The train engineer and two additional rail workers who faced charges for the deadly July 2013 oil train accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, were acquitted on Friday after the jury deliberated for nine days. If convicted of all charges, they potentially faced life in prison. 

The end of the trial of these three employees for their role in the Canadian oil train disaster that resulted in 47 deaths and the destruction of much of downtown Lac-Mégantic appears to have brought some closure to residents of the still-recovering town — although most are still waiting for justice.

As the trial began, the BBC reported the sentiments of Lac-Mégantic resident Jean Paradis, who lost three friends in the accident and thought the wrong people were on trial.

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. 

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