Yet another oil train accident occurred today in central North Dakota, near the town of Heimdal. The derailment resulted in at least 10 cars catching fire; each car carries around 30,000 gallons of crude oil.
The accident highlights the ongoing risk the oil and railways industries impose upon thousands of communities across North America. A risk that has been in no way diminished by the inadequate new safety rules issued by the Department of Transport’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) late last week.
The tank cars involved in today’s accident are known as ‘unjacketed CPC-1232s’. They are the same cars involved in four major explosive derailments earlier this year and also the accident in Lynchburg, Virginia in April 2014. Under the new rules it could be five to eight years before these cars are phased out.
But the tank cars that will eventually replace them are only marginally less dangerous and would likely have also ruptured in today’s accident. The fact is that in modelling conducted by PHMSA in drafting the new rules, the newly mandated tank cars can rupture when impacted at speeds of between 12 and 18 mph.
Yet speed limits set under the rules continue to allow oil trains to travel at 50 mph throughout most of the United States and are only slowed down to 40 mph in “High Threat Urban Areas”. In other words, nothing in the new rules ensures that when an oil train derails the tank cars involved will not rupture, spilling crude oil across the scene that is highly likely to ignite and explode.
The transport of crude oil by train is not a disaster waiting to happen, it has in fact already happened over and over. While the tragic loss of life that occurred in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec has not yet been repeated, it only seems a matter of luck that subsequent accidents have occurred either far from populated areas, or in the case of the February accident in West Virginia and the April 2014 incident in Lynchburg, VA, that people close by escaped with their lives.
And while we have been lucky to avoid loss of life, oil train derailments since Lac-Mégantic have spread pollution into the nation’s waterways with alarming regularity and lack of accountability. In Aliceville, Alabama, over 700,000 gallons of oil spilled into a wetland. In Lynchburg, VA, 50,000 gallons spilled into the James River, while at Mount Carbon, WV, crude spilled into the Kanawha River.
The fact is that oil trains are dangerous and should be stopped. Our analysis shows that the vast majority of America’s petroleum is transported by other means. We could end this reckless practice today and the only impact would be oil companies and rail companies making less profit.
A moratorium on oil trains should be implemented immediately to keep America’s communities and climate safe. It is clear that PHMSA is not fit for purpose, whether keeping the public safe from oil trains or pipelines.