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A plume of smoke and fire from one of crude oil tank car explosion in Casselton, ND on December 30, 2013.
Dawn Faught via NTSB
Crude oil tank car explosion in Casselton, ND in 2013.

May 14, 2015 Nationwide: Groups file lawsuit over weak tank car standards

The new safety standards issued by the Department of Transportation take too long to get dangerous tank cars off the tracks and contain loopholes that leave too many vulnerable.

Earthjustice has filed suit in the 9th Circuit challenging the rule on behalf of ForestEthics, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Washington Environmental Council, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Spokane Riverkeeper, and the Center for Biological Diversity. (Read more)

Train cars burst into flames following the derailment.
Image courtesy of Valley News Live

May 6, 2015 North Dakota: Town evacuated after crude oil train derails, explodes

A BNSF train with 107 cars carrying crude oil derails in central North Dakota.

Five to ten cars reportedly explode and burst into flames. The nearby town of Heimdal and surrounding farmsteads are evacuated. (Source reports)

An oil train moves through California's Central Valley. The newly opened Bakersfield Crude Terminal has the capacity to receive two 100-car unit trains a day.
Elizabeth Forsyth / Earthjustice

May 4, 2015 California: Crude oil terminal cited for Clean Air Act violations

The EPA cites the Bakersfield Crude Terminal for 10 violations of the Clean Air Act, declaring the crude-by-rail facility a major air pollution source that should have been subjected to rigorous environmental review during the permitting process.

The newly opened Terminal has the capacity to receive two 100-car unit trains a day. (Read more)

Towering flames were seen after the derailment near Galena.
Image courtesy of Dubuque Scanner
Towering flames were seen after the derailment near Galena.

Mar. 7, 2015 Ontario: River system contaminated

A 94-car CN train carrying Alberta crude to eastern Canada derails near Gogama. Numerous cars catch fire. Oil spills into the Mattagami River System, which is used for fishing and drinking. (Source)

Mar. 5, 2015 Illinois: Fires burn for days

A BNSF train carrying 103 cars filled with Bakken crude oil derails south of Galena, near the Mississippi River, resulting in thick plumes of smoke and fires that burned for days. (Source)

Feb. 16, 2015 West Virginia: House destroyed, drinking water intake pumps closed

A CSX train carrying 100+ cars of Bakken crude oil derails near Mount Carbon. Nearly 20 cars ignite, resulting in explosions and plumes of thick black smoke. Fires burn for days. One home was destroyed, and one car falls into Kanawha River. Drinking water intake pumps serving nearby Montgomery are closed. (Source)

As hydraulic fracturing and tar sands drilling have created a glut of oil in recent years, the industry has scrambled to transport the fossil fuel from drill sites to the east and west coasts, where it can potentially be shipped overseas to more lucrative markets.

The increase in oil rail traffic, however, has not been matched with increased regulatory scrutiny.

The crude oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, killed 47 people.
Photo courtesy of Sûreté du Québec
The crude oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Canada.

Oil trains are not subject to the same strict routing requirements placed on other hazardous materials; trains carrying explosive crude are permitted to pass directly through cities—with tragic results. A train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic on July 6, 2013, killing 47 people in the small community.

In the absence of more protective regulations, communities across the country are beginning to take matters in their own hands.

What You Need To Know

Q. What are DOT-111 and CPC-1232?

DOT-111s have been in service in North America for several decades and were designed to carry liquids such as corn syrup. When involved in derailments, the tank cars are prone to puncture and spill their contents. As crude production in the United States has surged exponentially in recent years, these outdated rail cars have been used to transport the crude oil throughout the country. When these tank cars are involved in accidents while carrying highly volatile and toxic liquids such as crude oil, they have high tendency to spill oil and explode.

The U.S. and Canadian official accident investigators recognized decades ago that the DOT-111s were unsafe for carrying hazardous materials, finding that the chance of a “breach” (i.e., loss of contents, potentially leading to an explosion) is over 50% in some derailment scenarios. U.S. and Canadian safety investigators have repeatedly found that DOT-111s are unsafe and recommended that they not be used for explosive or hazardous materials, including crude oil.

CPC-1232s were developed by industry in response to the clear threats posed by the DOT-111s, and at best they represent a modest safety improvement. However, a large number of recent catastrophic crashes have involved CPC-1232s, and it is now well recognized that they are not an adequate response to the risks of shipping crude by rail.

Q. What is Bakken crude oil?

Bakken crude refers to oil from the Bakken shale formation, located primarily in North Dakota, where oil production has skyrocketed in recent years due to the availability of newer hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) techniques. The increase in the nation’s output of crude oil in 2013, mostly attributable to Bakken production, was the largest in the nation’s history.

Bakken crude is highly flammable, much more so than some crude oils. Today, Bakken crude moves in “unit trains” of up to 120 rail cars all carrying oil, as long as a mile and a half, often made up of unsafe DOT-111s and CPC-1232s.

Q. Have there been accidents involving these trains?

Yes. At this point, derailments of tank cars carrying crude oil have become almost commonplace. Since the surge in Bakken production began, there have been a number of high profile derailments of DOT-111s and CPC-1232s carrying Bakken crude that have led to massive oil spills, catastrophic explosions, evacuations, and significant casualties.

In fact, just a few days after the DOT issued its final rule, a derailment in North Dakota of a 107-car train of CPC-1232s resulted in a huge fire and the evacuation of the nearby town. It was the 24th such derailment since the tragic accident in the small Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, where 60 tank cars derailed and caught fire, killing 47 people.

Given the extraordinary volume of Bakken crude currently being transported in unsafe rail cars, it is only a matter of time before another disaster of this magnitude—or worse—occurs.

Q. What steps have the U.S. and Canadian governments taken?

Safety experts in the U.S. government have repeatedly sounded the alarm that Bakken crude oil should not be shipped in DOT-111 tank cars due to the risks. Yet prior to the issuance of the new rules, all DOT did was issue safety alerts recommending—but not requiring—shippers to use the safest tank cars in their fleets for shipments of Bakken crude and to avoid using DOT-111 cars. After CPC-1232s breached, spilled oil and exploded in several rail accidents in 2014 and 2015, the investigators extended their recommendations to CPC-1232s.

In the new tank car rule and a similar Canadian rule, new tank car standards will replace both DOT-111s and CPC-1232s for newly built tank cars. However, for existing tank cars, both countries have settled for weaker standards that require only that modest additional safety features be added to the CPC-1232 cars.

Q. What are the other problems with the rule?

In addition to the extended timeline that keeps unsafe tank cars on the rails for years to come, the lawsuit filed on May 14, 2015, raises a number of other issues. For example:

  • The rule only applies to trains with 35 oil tank cars or more: Bakken crude can be transported in unsafe tank cars as long as there are no more than 34 cars in the train—forever.
  • While the rule establishes a fairly robust standard for new tank cars, it allows existing cars to be held to a significantly weaker standard, exposing the public to excessive risk.
  • The rule establishes a 40 mile per hour speed limit for only a small number of urban areas, but doesn’t offer this important protection to most populated areas near railroad tracks, rural communities, drinking water supplies, or other sensitive environments.
  • The rule actually weakens standards for notice to emergency responders and the public that have been in place for the last year, meaning responders and communities will have even less information about the risks from crude oil transportation.

Q. What happens next?

The case has been filed directly with the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A group of local governments have also filed a challenge, and the American Petroleum Institute has brought a lawsuit of their own. The various challenges will likely be consolidated before one court of appeals. A decision is not expected before 2016.  

(Updated on May 14, 2015)

A Glut of Oil

About 800,000 barrels of oil are transported across America per day. Oil rail traffic has increased 6000% from 2008 to 2014.

Originated Carloads of Crude Oil on U.S. Class I Railroads
(Source: AAR, FRA)

More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents in 2013, than was spilled in the nearly four decades since the federal government began collecting data on such spills.

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Caution: Crude-by-Rail Crossing

In this Down to Earth episode, attorney Kristen Boyles discusses the fight to stop the expansion of crude-by-rail projects, which use trains to transport crude oil to facilities that then export it across the U.S. and internationally.

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