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Explosive Crude-By-Rail Rolls Into Main Street America

Residents rally outside Berkeley City Hall to show opposition to a proposed crude by rail project.

Residents rally outside Berkeley City Hall to show opposition to a proposed crude by rail project.

Mauricio Castillo / Earthjustice

Is volatile crude oil coming by rail to a town near me? For weeks, I’ve been asking myself that question as I kept hearing about the skyrocketing number of trains that are transporting potentially explosive types of crude throughout the U.S. to East and West Coast export facilities.

And I’m not alone.

Recently, I attended a protest by my fellow neighbors in Berkeley, California, to stop crude-by-rail shipments coming through our town. The crude-oil boom is brought on by fracking in North Dakota and drilling in Canada’s Alberta tar sands. Both forms of crude are hazardous—Bakken shale crude from North Dakota is highly flammable and tar sands oil is extremely corrosive and also difficult to clean up.

Not surprisingly, once people hear how explosive and dangerous this crude can be when spilled, they really don’t want it traveling through their main streets … or anywhere else. But travel it does. Hundreds of miles, in fact, through rural towns and along main streets, along densely populated areas like Chicago and Albany, and even inside windswept and vulnerable wild lands like Montana’s Glacier National Park.

I once drove a U-Haul along Yellowstone’s winding roads in my move from New York to California. The sun was bright and the wind was calm, but I was still gripping the steering wheel the whole time. Now imagine a 100-foot long train filled with millions of gallons of explosive crude oil traveling through that same area—in the dead of winter with the wind howling and the snow piling up on the tracks.

Seems like an accident just waiting to happen, right? Unfortunately, it already has, time and again. In fact, more oil spilled from trains last year than in the last four decades. And these spills can be catastrophic. Last July, a crude oil train derailed in Canada, decimating a town and killing 47 people.

These and other sobering statistics are causing communities to think twice about allowing these exploding trains onto their tracks. Last month, the City Council of Berkeley voted unanimously to oppose an oil company’s plans to transport crude oil through their town and other East Bay cities to a new refinery in nearby San Luis Obispo County. The council was backed by several people who showed up before the meeting to protest the crude by rail project.

East Bay resident Margaret Rossoff, who helps support communities in fighting refineries, compared crude by rail to “transporting dynamite.” Shoshanna Howard with the Center for Biological Diversity described the project as “preposterous,” adding that “We shouldn’t continue feeding into a fossil fuel system that has proven us wrong time and again.” Their concerns were echoed by many other local residents who felt strongly that we are going in the wrong direction by allowing more crude oil transport.

They are not alone.

In addition to Berkeley, the City Council of Richmond, another Bay Area community, also voted to oppose crude-by-rail plans that involved trains running through its city. In early February, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued energy company Kinder Morgan a permit to operate its crude-by-rail project, without any notice to the public or environmental and health review. Kinder Morgan is transporting volatile Bakken crude oil to Bay Area refineries using the same unsafe train cars involved in the explosion in Canada. Members of the Richmond community, perhaps even members of the air district’s Board of Directors, did not know that a permit to transport crude oil had been issued for over a month. The community’s opposition is backed by Earthjustice, which on behalf of environmental justice and conservation groups filed a lawsuit against Kinder Morgan and the air district and asked the court to halt operations immediately while the project undergoes a full and transparent review under the California Environmental Quality Act.

On the other side of the country, residents in the county of Albany, New York, feel similarly. Recently, the county halted plans to expand crude-by-rail operations at its port terminal. The news followed pressure by a broad coalition—including community and environmental groups like Earthjustice—against the state Department of Environmental Conservation for its dangerously lax approach to skyrocketing shipments of crude-by-rail into the Port of Albany.

To Big Oil, these communities may look like places where it can transport millions of barrels of crude oil without drawing too much attention.  But to people living near these tracks, like me and thousands of others, these communities are home. We have a right to know what hazards are moving in next door, a right to participate in decisions that impact our neighborhoods, and a right to health and environmental review of industrial activities before they happen.

We are not alone.

Related Audio Interview: Attorney Kristen Boyles discusses the fight to stop the expansion of crude-by-rail projects. Earthjustice, on behalf of communities and conservation groups, is fighting for the right of communities to stop these projects, which endanger public health and the environment. Listen to the interview:

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.