It’s happening with all too great a frequency:
A CSX train carrying 3 million gallons of Bakken crude derailed in West Virginia on Tuesday, causing a huge fireball and leaking oil into a river tributary that many depend on for drinking water.
A train carrying crude oil derailed in northern Ontario on Feb. 14, causing a fire. Injuries were limited to one person suffering smoke inhalation.
Last April, in a 17-car derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia, three railcars failed and spilled their crude into the James River and caused a fire. Again no injuries were reported.
But for a far greater disaster you only have to go back less than two years to July 6, 2013, and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where a 74-car train carrying Bakken crude, left unattended, slipped its brakes, derailed and caused an explosion that killed 47 townspeople.
Considering the huge increase in oil transported by rail in the Canada, the United States, Washington state and through Snohomish County communities and along our rivers and inland seas, maybe we should consider ourselves fortunate it hasn’t happened more often. Since 2008, oil transported by rail in the U.S. has increased more than 40 times over. In Washington, 714 million gallons of crude oil was moved by rail in 2013, a figure that leapt to about 3 billion gallons last year.
We have not been caught unaware. State and federal regulators have been working on legislation and new safety and spill response rules. Later this March the state departments of Ecology, Transportation, other state agencies and the Federal Railroad Administration are expected to forward their final findings and recommendations for improving safety of marine and rail transportation of oil. The draft report released in December recommended bolstering the state’s spill prevention and response program, hiring additional Federal Railroad Administration-certified inspectors, enhancing and ensuring a continued supply of spill-response equipment for local fire departments and increasing access for inspectors to railroad crossings on private roads and strengthening financial responsibility certificates that ensures those transporting oil can pay for damage and clean-up costs following a spill.
The Legislature is considering a bill, House Bill 1449, that would put many of the above recommendations into law. The bill, supported by local officials, first responders, environmental groups and others, has moved out of the House Environment committee.
But following two of the most recent spills, those in Virginia and West Virginia, state and federal officials should also call for new investigations of the rail cars involved in both. The rail and oil industries, responding to earlier safety concerns promoted a new car, the CPC-1232 as being safer than the older DOT-111 cars, touting their thicker steel shells, protective shields on each end and improved valve protection. But both spills and fires in Virginia and West Virginia involved the newer CPC-1232 cars.
A National Transportation Safety Board spokesman said in August that “the 1232 is also not as robust as is needed.”
In making ourselves less dependent on foreign oil, we must also take the precautions that acknowledge our increased vulnerability to our own oil.