It may take more than a year before federal investigators can say what caused the derailment of 13 cars carrying crude oil from North Dakota in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia last month, but east coast communities don’t need an official report to imagine what a crude derailment could do in their town.
The Lynchburg accident, which sent three rail cars into the James River, where one exploded and spilled 30,000 gallons of crude oil into the waterway is just the latest in a string of dangerous accidents over the past few months. In the last year there have been nine such accidents, including an incident in January where oil tank cars derailed on a bridge in Philadelphia.
According to The Record, over the past 18 months, New Jersey is one state that has quietly become a major transportation corridor for crude-by-rail shipments. Millions of gallons of highly combustible crude oil are believed to now be passing through neighborhoods in densely populated Bergen County every day, sometimes within just a dozen feet of homes and schools. The oil trains that travel through the state on the CSX River Line also pass through the Hackensack River Watershed and over the Oradell Reservoir which supplies water to 750,000 people every day.
Bergen County officials told The Record that they only recently learned of the crude oil shipments down the CSX River Line through word of mouth, not from federal officials or CSX.
“I guess they can ship anything down without telling anyone,” Bergen County Police Lt. Matthew Tiedemann, the county’s Office of Emergency Management coordinator told the Record. “That puts us in a position where we have to knock on some wood and hope for the best.”
Ridgefield Park Mayor George Fosdick told The Record that while his city has plans to respond to a derailment, there is no plan that could deal with a derailment involving Bakken crude.
Earlier this month, in New York, Albany Sheriff, Craig Apple, said that while county emergency crews were prepared to handle an oil-train accident involving three or four tank cars, a larger derailment would cause “mayhem.”
Railroads in Albany carry about a fourth of the oil coming from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, — around 100-car trains per day, each carrying 70,000 barrels. Opponents of the expanding oil-by-rail operations in the area recently won a small victory when Albany County agreed to temporarily halt plans by Global Partners to install boilers at its rail terminal to make oil flow faster out of tank cars.
Philadelphia is another hub for oil-by-rail shipments. About a quarter of oil produced in North Dakota ends up in Philly refineries. Opening earlier this month, the Eddystone Rail Facility is the latest new oil-by-rail facility in the area. The facility can currently receive 80,000 barrels of crude a day but eventually it is intended to handle 160,000 barrels a day.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the environmental group Clean Water Action on Monday submitted a right-to-know request to Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management, demanding that it release risk assessments, evacuation plans, and response plans to communities along the rail routes.
In the U.S., the amount of oil shipped by rail has increased by 50-fold since 2008, to around 1 million barrels a day. Last year more oil spilled in rail accidents — 1.15 million gallons — than in the previous 35 years combined. According to Canada’s National Energy Board, Canada exported a record high of 160,000 barrels per day of crude oil by rail in the first quarter of 2014. That’s a 50 percent increase from the same period last year.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) recently issued a statement “strongly urging” shippers to use newer railcars for Bakken crude. But the older cars remain legal. One week after the Lynchburg derailment, DOT issued an emergency order requiring railroads operating trains containing more than 1,000,000 gallons of Bakken crude, or about 35 tank cars, to provide information about frequency, volume, and routing to State Emergency Response Commissions (SERC). The railroads have 30 days to comply with the new regulation and failure to do so will bar them from transporting Bakken crude in large quantities.