bakken bomb trains

'Bomb Trains,' a New Book on the Deadly, Ongoing Threat of Oil by Rail

Read time: 7 mins
Bomb Trains book cover crop

On July 6, 2013, a train hauling crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, resulting in fires and explosions that killed 47 people and wiped out a large part of the small Canadian town's center. At the time I was living in Albany, New York, which had become a major distribution point for Bakken oil delivered to the Port of Albany in mile-long trains like the one that devastated Lac-Mégantic. In the six months following the deadly disaster, several more trains of Bakken oil derailed and exploded across North America.

As the risk of these oil trains became very apparent, I began investigating how the trains could be allowed to travel through communities like mine in Albany and started publishing my findings here at DeSmog. Now, just after the six year anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, I have compiled all of that research into the new book Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk.

Federal Government Foot-Dragging Helps Oil Industry Delay Oil-by-Rail Rules

Read time: 6 mins

In an attempt to reduce the risk of fiery oil train accidents, the state of Washington is working to pass a bill that would limit the vapor pressure of oil on trains to below 9 pounds per square inch (psi). Vapor pressure is a measure of the volatility of flammable liquids and correlates to their likelihood of igniting. Higher vapor pressure means an oil is more volatile and more likely to ignite and burn when a train derails.

If the federal government won’t act to protect public safety and adopt a safer nationwide standard, we will adopt our own,” state Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) said of the bill he sponsored. “There is just too much to lose — for people and our environment.”

Billig's comments point to the federal government's repeated failure to address the volatility of the oil moving by rail in America.

3 Reasons the Deadly Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Disaster Could Happen Again

Read time: 10 mins
Oil trains burning in Lac-Megantic, Quebec

In the five years since the oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, claimed 47 lives, the world has learned much about the risks that hauling oil by rail poses. One of the clearest lessons is how little has been done to address those risks, which means that deadly event could easily happen again.

Washington Agency Votes to Reject Vancouver Energy’s Massive Oil-by-Rail Terminal

Read time: 5 mins
Portland, Oregon, bridge with banner reading 'Coal oil gas none shall pass'

In another major blow to the West Coast oil-by-rail industry, a Washington state agency voted unanimously to recommend Governor Jay Inslee reject the Vancouver Energy oil terminal. Proposed for construction in Vancouver, Washington, along the Columbia River, it would be the largest oil-by-rail facility in the country.

Washington State’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) has been reviewing the project since 2013 — reportedly the longest review period ever for the council. However, its November 28 meeting and vote on the final recommendation for the Tesoro Savage–backed project only took 10 minutes.

New York Attorney General: Feds Must Address Bakken Bomb Trains. Feds: Maybe Later?

Read time: 7 mins
Fireball

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has joined with attorneys general from California, Illinois, Maryland, Maine, and Washington in calling for limits on the volatility of crude oil transported by rail. The failure of federal regulators and Congress to address this known safety issue has led Schneiderman to continue to pressure regulators on it.

Overloaded: New Rules Allowed for Heavier Bakken Oil Trains

Read time: 12 mins
DOT-111 as part of ethanol unit train

This is the third article in a series looking at why oil trains derail at higher rates than ethanol trains. More ethanol was moved by rail from 2010–2015 than oil, but oil trains derail at a higher rate and with more severe consequences. Part one addressed train length as a factor and part two addressed “sloshing.” 

On January 25, 2011, a notice appeared in the Federal Register announcing a change in the rules on allowable weight for a rail tank car transporting hazardous materials. It declared the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) approval to increase this weight limit, bumping it up to 286,000 pounds gross rail load (GRL) from the previous limit of 263,000 pounds.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but this rule change was well-timed for the Bakken oil-by-rail boom that was taking off at that point. Regardless, it had immediate impacts on the ability of the industry to move oil in long unit trains with cars that were heavier than previously allowed. 

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