Climate

Environmental Groups Sue Government Over Use Of Dangerous Rail Cars For Shipping Oil

CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Firefighters and rescue workers work along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown in Lynchburg, Va., Wednesday, April 30, 2014.

Three environmental groups are suing the U.S. Department of Transportation for continuing to allow crude oil shipments in older, more puncture-prone rail cars.

The Sierra Club, Earthjustice and ForestEthics filed a lawsuit against the DOT Thursday after the department didn’t respond to a to a legal petition on the rail cars that the groups filed in July. The petition called on the DOT to ban shipments of crude oil in DOT-111 tank cars, which the groups say were “put into service decades ago” and lack “safeguards added to improve crashworthiness.”

“DOT has yet to restrict the shipment of volatile crude oil in the unsafe DOT-111 tank cars,” the groups wrote in the petition. “This omission is inexcusable given the long string of findings by the National Transportation Safety Board (‘NTSB’) that the legacy DOT-111 tank cars are extremely vulnerable to puncture, spilling oil, and precipitating explosions and fires in train accidents.”

These are the same type of tank cars that were used in the train that derailed and exploded in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic last July, killing 47 people and destroying the town’s center. In the U.S., about 69 percent of the total rail fleet is made up of DOT-111 tank cars. As the AP pointed out in 2012, the NTSB has known about the safety concerns relating to the DOT-111 tank car — including a thin, puncture-prone shell, ends that are vulnerable to being torn and valves and fittings that are vulnerable to breaks during rollovers — since 1991.

“The Department of Transportation agrees these tank cars create an unacceptable public risk and need to be banned for shipping Bakken crude oil,” Patti Goldman, an Earthjustice attorney told The Hill. “But the department proposes to expose the public to these unacceptable risks for four more years. We can’t run the risk of another disaster like Lac-Mégantic, Quebec when 47 people died in a DOT-111 crude oil explosion.”

In July, ForestEthics released a map that illustrated the 25 million Americans who live in the “blast zone” of an oil train accident, or the one-mile zone that has to be evacuated if an oil train derails and catches fire. That number could be even higher, since some states don’t make their oil train routes public. Rail companies tried to keep Oregon and Washington officials from making oil train routes public earlier this year, but Washington refused, and in July, Oregon’s state fire marshal posted maps of oil train routes online.

ForestEthics also found that oil train traffic in North America has increased by 4,000 percent over the last five years, with most of the traffic coming from North Dakota’s Bakken region and Alberta’s tar sands. Oil train accidents have also increased — an oil train derailed and exploded in Alabama last November, and in April, an oil train derailed, caught fire, and spilled oil into Virginia’s James River.