It’s a helpless feeling watching trains chug through town with volatile cargo. Cities can’t do anything to ensure safety. Neither can states, because rail is regulated by the feds.
On Wednesday, train cars carrying crude oil derailed near downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, pitching three tankers into the James River. Smoke from the massive fire darkened the sky. Nearby buildings were evacuated. Mercifully, nobody was hurt.
And the call went out for urgent action on safety.
The same alarm was sounded in December when a spectacular rail accident in Casselton, North Dakota, forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents. It was sounded last summer when a runaway train carrying crude derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. Five major derailments have occurred in North America within the past year.
Oil train traffic has increased by 450 percent from 2005 to 2012, corresponding with the boom in domestic oil production. Federal safety regulations have not kept pace. The country doesn’t have enough pipelines to handle the load, and the Obama administration keeps delaying a decision on the Keystone project. Regardless of how that controversy plays out, crude will still need to be moved by rail.
Outgoing National Transportation and Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman warned that the government is moving far too slowly to address the hazard. In an April 23 speech, she bemoaned the plodding process of convening stakeholders and seeking public comment. She said in her decade on the board, there was a “tombstone mentality,” meaning the body count needed to mount before any action would be taken. She thinks it’s time for emergency action.
On the same day of the Lynchburg derailment, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sent draft safety rules to the Office of Management and Budget, but that agency has 90 days to consider them. No urgency there.
Meanwhile, Canada has already announced plans to phase out or retrofit DOT-111 rail cars by May 2017. An estimated 95,000 DOT-111s are used to ship hazardous liquids throughout North America, and regulators say they rupture too easily. Foxx expects the U.S. to take similar action, but if an emergency isn’t declared, the changes would be in the distant future.
In the meantime, we must rely on oil companies to voluntarily provide safer tanker fleets, and some have pledged to do so. Rail companies have agreed to slow their trains through populated areas and conduct more inspections. The cooperation is appreciated, but it won’t be enough.
More trains are headed our way. The oil fields of North Dakota and Eastern Montana are producing more than a million barrels of crude per day, and three Puget Sound refineries already receive much of it. Two others are gearing up to do the same.
So, Spokane and communities across the Northwest are at the mercy of a lumbering federal bureaucracy.
We can draw up disaster plans. We can conduct drills. But other than that, we can just cross our fingers and watch the trains go by.