EARTHWORKS

Pepsi Cans on Wheels: Stopping Explosive Oil Trains

Aaron Mintzes's avatar
By Aaron Mintzes

August 21, 2014

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Some communities do not even know that mile long 100-car unit trains hauling explosive crude oil pass through their neighborhoods until they hear the rumbling of the tracks. Last summer, one of these trains derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. Additional tragedies, including one in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia last April, spotlight the enormous danger posed by what some now call “Bomb Trains”.

This problem has grown fast because of the expansion of fracking.  These rolling hazards spilt more flammable crude oil last year than in the previous forty. Records from the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) reveal zero incidents in 2009 involving crude oil transportation by rail. By 2012, that number ballooned to 86. And halfway through 2013, PHMSA tracked 85.

The Ford Pinto of Rail Cars

The culprit in this sharp increase in rail car explosions is a type of legacy train car called the DOT-111. This train car, originally fashioned in the 1960s to haul commodities like corn syrup, has now, in light of the enormous demand, become the transit mode of choice for the oil and gas industry. The former mayor of the Village of Barrington Illinois- an upscale community north of Chicago- called the DOT-111s “the Ford Pinto of rail cars”. One Washington DC- based consultant for the rail industry described the DOT-111s as “Pepsi cans on wheels”.

None of this is news to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). An independent agency charged with investigating railroad accidents, NTSB has known for decades that the DOT-111s create an enormous hazard and have a tendency to puncture when they derail. NTSB traces the DOT-111’s structural failure rate to the non-insulated, non-pressurized aluminum, steel, or nickel tank shells that lack head shields or jacketed thermal protection.

What's Under the Hood?

Another major problem lies with how industry sometimes mischaracterizes the crude oil shipments so that the wrong safety measures apply. The Federal Railroad Administration recently sent a letter to the American Petroleum Institute describing how improperly classified crude oil has resulted in shipments aboard trains not equipped to handle that variety of hazardous material.

All Aboard the Reform Train

In light of this disturbing trend, the Federal Government recently proposed a rule designed to provide greater safety for these legacy cars. Our friends at Earthjustice, Sierra Club, and ForestEthics have their own proposal. Stop the oil trains now while we sort out the safety improvements. Seem like a pretty reasonable request in light of the Department of Transportation’s recent finding that “the flammability of crude oil being shipped by bulk rail poses a significant risk of substantial endangerment to health, property, or the environment when an explosion occurs.”

Please join us in urging the Secretary of Transportation to put an immediate stop to these deadly oil trains.


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Tagged with: phmsa, oil trains, federal railroad administration, crude by rail, bakken

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