Saturday, March 7, 2015

Shipping Oil by Rail

Two weeks ago, as promised, President Obama vetoed again the construction of the Keystone Pipeline to run crude oil south from Canada to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico.  A congressional effort to override the veto failed.

In recent years, the movement of oil by trains to the east and west coasts has increased manyfold as oil production has increased in the Upper Midwest and Canada.  

Keystone by itself would not have been sufficient to handle all the oil that now is being harvested in these areas.  So we are going to have to be prepared for more oil shipments by rail.  

Unfortunately, the rail record is not good.

Here are the three most-reported oil train derailments of recent years.  There have been many, many others, including a November 2013 event that spilled 2.7 million gallons of oil in a rural area of Alabama. 

Lac-Megantic, July 2013

A 74-car oil train derailed in a small Quebec town in the very early hours one morning, setting off a hot fire that burned 30 buildings and killed 47 people, most of them in flames.  It was Canada's most deadly railway accident in 149 years.

Most of the dead had been inside a popular downtown bar.  If the accident had occurred during business hours, it is likely that many more people would have died.

An estimated 1.5 million gallons of oil were spilled in the derailment.

Later, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration estimated that more oil had spilled from trains in the United States in 2013 alone than in all the years since 1975.

Environmentalists countered that many thousands of gallons of oil also had spilled from pipeline leaks and in other incidents.

Lessons Learned:  After the accident, experts concluded that oil cars were much more likely to derail at higher speeds.  A top speed of 40 miles per hour was recommended for oil trains. 

In addition, oil train operators were urged not to deploy older oil cars, but only ones built to meet new safety specifications adopted by the railway industry in 2011.

Lynchburg, VA, April 2014

Fifteen cars derailed from an oil train and caught fire, sending smoke and flames 60 feet into the air.  Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes and returned later in the day.  An unknown amount of burning oil was spilled into the James River, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

The train was moving at 24 miles per hour when the derailment occurred.  The cars that derailed met the higher industry safety standards.

West Virginia, February 2015

Twenty-seven cars on an oil train of 109 cars derailed just after the train had passed through the town of Montgomery.  Nineteen of the cars were punctured, and many burst into flames that burned for days.  An unknown amount of oil leaked into a river, causing the local water utility to close its access point and cut off water to 2,000 people for several days.  Electrical power was cut to 800 households for a longer period.

Transportation officials said the train was moving at 33 miles per an hour and not speeding.  Again, all the cars on the train met the new 2011 standards for safety.

What Next?

Recently, the Washington Post's Wonkblog sized up the dangers of oil transit by pipeline versus rail cars and concluded this:

       "It's abundantly clear that the rate of accidents per billion barrels is significantly higher for
        rail, and it also fluctuates more year to year. Pipelines see a pretty steady 22 or so accidents
        per billion barrels of oil transported. In recent years, the rate for rail-transported oil is
        10 to 20 times higher than that. But the rail accident rate is falling, suggesting that railroads
        are starting to make the safety investments necessary to deal with the huge increase in oil                     business the industry has seen since 2010 or so."

One investment to come may be better oil cars -- replacing the new 2011-standard ones that seem not to have been as safe as expected.

Meanwhile, mile-long oil trains run 18 times a week run on tracks alongside the Columbia River in Washington state, while others run on the river's Oregon shores.  In 1984, an oil train ran aground alongside the Columbia, spilling a large amount -- estimates ranged from 170,000 to 350,000 gallons -- of oil into the river, injuring and killing birds and carrying glops and clumps of oil to the river's large and ecologically sensitive estuary.

In Philadelphia, 45 to 80 oil trains move through the city weekly.  The population of Philadelphia is about 1.5 million people.  If one of the trains derails and catches fire, the loss of life likely will be greater than in any previous incident.

Oil trains are now the main conveyors of crude oil in the lower 48 states.  It's time we faced the fact and tried to assure that people, lands and rivers are safe.

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