Millions of Americans live within the “blast zone” of an oil train accident, according to a new map put together by environmental group ForestEthics.
The map, created using industry data and on-the-ground reports of people living close to oil train routes, outlines the routes of oil trains across the U.S. and into Canada. Using census data, ForestEthics estimates that more than 25 million Americans live within a one mile zone that must be evacuated in case of an oil train fire — what the group calls the “blast zone.”
That number could be even higher. Eddie Scher, Communications Director for ForestEthics, told ThinkProgress that the map represents all the known routes of oil trains, but since some states don’t make that information publicly available, it’s likely missing some routes.
“We are looking at this as a very conservative take on what routes are being used by these oil trains,” he said. “I’m positive that there are more routes out there that have trains on them.”
The group’s mapping site allows users to search by zip code to see the closest oil train routes in their region, and includes a petition to President Obama and Congress to address oil-by-rail safety that ForestEthics is planning to deliver later this year. In it, the group calls on regulators to ban DOT-111 tanker cars, which Scher said puncture easily and have been involved in major crashes, including the one in Lac-Mégantic that killed 47 people one year ago.
Scher also said he thinks oil train routes need to be public in all states, a transparency that rail companies are fighting. In Oregon and Washington, for instance, oil companies are trying to get state officials to sign confidentiality agreements that would allow releasing information on the volume of oil shipped and the route used only in “bonafide emergency planning and emergency response activities.”
“We strongly believe that these routes should be public, that we shouldn’t expose the public to this risk without letting them know what’s going on,” Scher said.
According to ForestEthics, oil train traffic in North America has increased by 4,000 percent over the last five years, with traffic stemming largely from the Bakken region in North Dakota and tar sands region in Alberta, Canada. Oil train accidents, too, have increased, and tragic ones like the Lac-Mégantic disaster have prompted calls for stricter regulations on shipping oil by rail.
Though the ForestEthics map is among the first to allow users to search for oil-by-rail routes by zip code, it isn’t the first to map environmental hazards by region. A Greenpeace map allows users to locate chemical plants close to their homes, and has found that there are 473 chemical facilities in the U.S. that each put 100,000 people or more at risk in the case of a spill.