Church bells in Lac Megantic, Quebec, rang 47 times on Monday to honor each person killed by a runaway oil train just two years ago.
It was the second anniversary of what’s become the town’s defining tragedy, when a unit train carrying 72 tankers of highly volatile crude oil derailed and exploded. There were fires, fumes, and an approximately 1.5 million gallon oil spill — emergency responders described a “war zone.” A “river of burning oil” ran down city streets and engulfed buildings in flames. Today, there are still scars on the soul of the town.
Though it happened in Canada, the explosion forced a fierce discussion in America about whether we were doing enough to prevent similar incidents at home. The volatile oil that caused the explosion, after all, came from North Dakota. And, safety advocates pointed out, that North Dakota oil was being shipped across America by train at a rate 40 times greater than just five years prior to the accident. Worse, there had been no upgrades in federal safety regulations to account for that increase. Canada had just experienced a major tragedy — it seemed like America was vulnerable to one as well.
What’s happened in those two years? For one, we’ve had more derailments of oil cars — at least six in 2015 alone, averaging about one per month. The latest one was just last week in Tennessee, causing the evacuation of 5,000 people.
But in May, we also got new and final safety standards for trains that carry oil and other flammable materials. Those standards include a new maximum speed of 50 miles per hour, and 40 miles per hour through urban areas. They also include updated braking systems for trains, and better classification of materials.
But according to some rail safety experts, the most worrisome thing about the new regulations is what they don’t include. Fred Millar, a rail safety consultant who has spent more than 30 years lobbying for accident prevention, told ThinkProgress on Tuesday that Americans still lack information about when trains are coming through their neighborhoods, what those trains contain, and what the worse case scenario would be if one derailed.
“The one thing that hasn’t changed [since Lac Megantic] is that the American public is not being granted the right to know the risk they’re being exposed to,” he said. “The American public is still being kept in the dark.”
It’s true that rail companies are not required to let communities know when or how much oil is being shipped through their backyards, and the new regulations do little to change that. Under the new standards, rail companies have to share that information with some emergency responders, but the general public cannot access that information. Companies often cite the risk of terrorism as the reason why.
But it’s not just routing and volume data that is being kept secret. According to Millar, railroad companies keep documents that outline what the “worst-case accident scenario” would be if a unit train carrying oil or other hazardous material derailed near an urban zone.
“That’s not a radical thing to ask of a railroad — please tell us what your cargos could do in an American city,” Millar said. “Tell us what you know.”
Millar argues that if the public is equipped with the knowledge about what could happen in a worst-case scenario, it might empower people to act and prevent those trains from coming through their neighborhoods. There is precedent for that — last year in Albany County, New York, local officials issued a moratorium on a crude-by-rail project, citing the risk of a dangerous derailment.
And as Lac Megantic showed, derailments near population centers can certainly be dangerous. But under the new rules, unit trains — trains with 100 cars or more of the same cargo — are not required to avoid urban areas.
If they do go through urban areas, those trains have to be operating under 40 miles per hour under the new rules. Millar has taken issue with that speed limit before, noting that 40 mph is still pretty fast for a 100-car oil train.
He’s not the only person who has raised the concern. In fact, the staff director of the Federal Railroad Administration has 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 Karl Alexy said at a the National Transportation Safety Board forum last year.
But just slowing down may create more problems. An unprecedented amount of oil is being produced in the Bakken Shale region, and there is not enough pipeline infrastructure to handle transportation. The only way for it to go is by rail — or truck, which no one wants — and there’s too much traffic on the rails. Anything slower than 40 miles per hour would bottleneck the system, the railroad industry argues. The United States Postal Service also operates on railroads, and if oil trains slow down, the industry argues that mail shipments might go back to truck.
With the final regulations already in place, Millar notes there’s not much else that can be done if the public wants stricter limits on speed, or more access to information. Except, of course, “civil disobedience.”
That seems to be the strategy environmentalists are taking in the wake of the two-year anniversary. As reported in the Hill, environmental groups are undergoing a week of protests against crude-by-rail this week, reportedly planning more than 100 events ranging from blockades to peaceful vigils. Four activists have already been arrested for suspending themselves from a railroad bridge to hang a banner protesting oil trains.
Millar says that’s the right idea. At the very least, safety advocates should be acting to stop oil train accidents now, instead of responding to them when they happen.
“Emergency response is a distraction. It’s hopeless. These accidents are way too big. ” he said. “All you can do is step back and watch it burn.”