A full day after a still-unknown amount of oil spilled from a 109-car oil train in West Virginia, portions of Kanawha and Fayette counties are still on fire.
The sight is becoming less abnormal. Across the United States and Canada, there’s been a string of fiery accidents involving oil trains. The accidents have involved these same unit trains containing 100-plus cars of light crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale. Just this weekend, a train derailed and spilled Bakken oil in Ontario, Canada. Last year an oil train derailed on a bridge over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, and 13 cars tipped over along the Penobscot River in Maine. Two summers ago, a derailment in Lac Megantic, Canada, killed 47 people.
These accidents have been the product of a 40-fold increase in crude-by-rail shipments since 2008 — an unprecedented jump that has so far seen no concurrent upgrade in federal safety requirements. In the wake of Monday’s disaster in West Virginia, rail safety advocates are drawing attention to what they see as huge problems with the way oil trains are currently regulated.
The most basic problem is that current safety regulations were never meant to handle the enormous loads and speeds at which oil trains are operating today. That’s at least according to Fred Millar, a rail safety consultant who has spent 30 years lobbying for accident prevention around the country.
“There was no such thing as oil trains two years ago, at least the way we see them now,” Millar said, noting that before the Bakken boom, crude oil was mostly shipped by pipeline and occasionally in mixed freight. “But now, with the Bakken oil, they’re pumping it out of the ground so fast with the fracking that the pipelines are all congested. The infrastructure is not ready for this.”
CREDIT: U. S. Energy Information Administration | Drilling Productivity Report
The Bakken shale is currently producing about 1.3 million barrels of oil every day, and the bulk of it — about 90 percent — is shipped by rail. That’s an enormous amount of oil, making up more than 10 percent of U.S. energy production. The boom has been driven by the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial well stimulation technique that helps oil and gas flow more freely from underground shale rock.
The reason the Bakken oil hasn’t gone into pipelines, Millar said, is because it simply can’t fit in the existing infrastructure, and pipelines take too long to approve and build. Rail, then, is the only feasible option.
But there are problems with the way oil trains are regulated, mostly because they were never intended to cover a system handling this much oil. The U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed new regulations for crude-by-rail, but Millar says they are “very, very weak …. like saying you’re going to design a better bucket, and guaranteeing that the bucket is better than a sieve.”
For one, Millar said, trains are running at a speed limit of 50 miles per hour in the countryside, and 40 miles per hour in densely populated areas. Under its most strict option, the proposed regulations would lower that to 40 miles per hour nationwide. But Millar notes that 100-car trains carrying only oil running at 40 miles per hour is still very fast — so fast, in fact, that even the staff director of the Federal Railroad Administration admitted that train cars would be punctured if derailed at that speed.
“When you begin to look at cars that are derailing at speeds of 30, 40 miles an hour, it’s very difficult, it’s a big ask, to expect that a tank car get hit [and] not be breached,” the FRA’s own Karl Alexy said at a the National Transportation Safety Board forum in April.
The railroad industry argues that it can’t slow down. There’s too much traffic on the rails, and anything slower than 40 miles per hour would bottleneck the system. Railroads note that The United Postal Service is their biggest corporate customer — if they slow down, their shipments will go back to truck. And nobody wants that.
“The railroads think that there’s no way the government is going to force them to slow down their trains to level that will actually prevent punctures,” Millar said.
Another way to prevent accidents that affect many people is to re-route all oil shipments around population centers. But the proposed regulations don’t contain those requirements. Instead, the DoT offered three proposals that aim to improve the quality of tank cars, including one that calls for thicker steel shells, and another to phase out the most dated tank cars. But the cars that derailed in West Virginia were newer models, raising questions about whether the quality of the car matters when it hits the ground at high speed carrying volatile material.
Some news outlets have found other problems with how crude by rail is regulated, including a loophole that makes it so railroads transporting crude oil in multiple tank cars are not required to develop comprehensive spill response plans, nor are they required to have resources on standby for response to worst-case discharges. Rail companies are also not required to let communities know when or how much oil is being shipped through their backyards — in fact, just a few months ago in West Virginia, state officials declined to release information about CSX’s crude oil shipments through communities.
The loopholes, secrecy, and perceived inadequacy of current regulation have all pushed some environmental groups to call for an end to crude-by-rail shipments altogether. In a statement released Tuesday, Mollie Matteson with the Center for Biological Diversity said it isn’t worth waiting the estimated five years it is going to take for the DOT’s proposed regulations to be implemented.
“Waiting another two, three or five years for marginal improvements in oil train safety is not acceptable when these bomb trains keep derailing and setting towns and rivers on fire,” said Matteson. “Before more people die and more waterways are destroyed, it’s time for our political leaders to put the brakes on oil-by-rail transport.”