The oil industry has scrambled to transport crude oil from drill sites to the east and west coasts, where it can potentially be shipped overseas to more lucrative markets, as hydraulic fracturing and tar sands drilling has created a glut of oil.
The increase in oil rail traffic, however, has not been matched with increased regulatory scrutiny.
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. In the absence of more protective regulations, communities across the country are beginning to take matters in their own hands.
Rail lines data via Natl. Transportation Atlas Database (2013). Last updated: June 3, 2016. View Larger Map
June 3, 2016 Oregon: Derailment in Columbia River Gorge
At least eight cars were involved. Flames from the resulting fire could be seen from the downtown area of nearby Mosier. The smoke plume was visible for miles. Portions of I-84 were shut down. A nearby school was evacuated.
February 3, 2016 New York: Coalition Challenges Clean Air Violations At Albany Crude-By-Rail Terminal
The County of Albany, a tenants association, and several environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice, file a lawsuit in federal court charging that the major crude-by-rail conglomerate Global Companies is operating in violation of the Clean Air Act.
January 6, 2016 Washington: Company Abandons Crude Oil as Part of Shipping Expansion Plan
One of the three companies proposing crude oil shipping terminals in Grays Harbor said it will abandon its plans to handle crude oil in comments submitted to state and local agencies. Groups say they will continue to closely monitor the company’s planned expansion of its existing terminal.
Nov. 8, 2015 Wisconsin: 13 train cars flip over; dozens of homes evacuated
A Canadian Pacific train carrying 109 cars of Bakken crude oil derails near the downtown area of Watertown, while en route to Pennsylvania. One of the 13 train cars is punctured, spilling hundreds of gallons of crude oil. Dozens of homes were evacuated overnight.
July 17, 2015 Montana: 35,000 gallons of crude spill; Half-mile radius evacuated
A BNSF train carrying 106 cars of crude oil traveling from North Dakota to Anacortes, Washington, derails near Culbertson. An estimated 35,000 gallons of crude spills. An evacuation order was issued for people within a half-mile radius. No injuries or explosions were reported.
June 19, 2015 California: Court ruling protects law holding railroads responsible for oil spills
A federal judge dismisses a legal challenge to a California law that requires railroads to commit to oil spill response plans and demonstrate financial solvency in efforts to reasonably prepare for the risk of oil car derailments and disasters. Earthjustice, representing a broad coalition, joined in the State of California’s defense of the law.
June 8, 2015 Nationwide: Broad coalition appeals tank car rule that keeps communities, emergency responders in the dark
Municipalities, Waterkeeper groups, and conservation organizations file an administrative appeal over the U.S. Department of Transportation's emergency responder and public notification provisions in the DOT’s Oil Tank Car Safety Rule.
May 21, 2015 Washington: Shell loses appeal of oil train project
Skagit County Superior Court dismisses Shell Oil Refinery’s appeal of a decision that required an environmental impact statement for their proposed oil-by-rail expansion. The decision follows the Skagit County Hearing Examiner’s February 2015 ruling that Shell’s proposed project posed a significant risk of harm to people, water and wildlife. Earthjustice represented local and state groups.
May 21, 2015 New York: Massive Oil Facility Expansion Blocked
In the face of a court challenge from a broad coalition of environmental and community groups and massive community opposition, the Department of Environmental Conservation halted Global Companies’ proposed expansion of its massive Albany oil train facility to handle tar sands oil.
May 14, 2015 Nationwide: Lawsuit Filed 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.
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.
May 4, 2015 California: Bakersfield Crude Terminal cited for Clean Air Act Violations
Mar. 7, 2015 Ontario: River system contaminated
Mar. 5, 2015 Illinois: Train derails; Fires burn for days
Feb. 27, 2015 Washington: Proposed Largest Oil Terminal on West Coast
River protection, conservation, and neighborhood groups move to become parties in proceedings that will decide the future of the proposed Tesoro-Savage crude-by-rail terminal. The facility would be the largest oil terminal on the West Coast.
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.
Feb. 14, 2015 Alberta: Train carrying Alberta tar sands derails
Feb. 14, 2015 Ontario: 29 cars derail; Fires burn for days
Jan. 29, 2015 California: Lawsuit filed over expansion of Bakersfield Crude Terminal
Groups, represented by Earthjustice, file suit over the expansion—orchestrated mostly in secret—of a crude oil operation at the Bakersfield Crude Terminal that could lead to a 1,000% increase in the amount of crude imported by rail into California each year.
Dec. 2, 2014 Washington, D.C.: Challenging Denial of Petition for Immediate Ban on DOT-111
Earthjustice, on behalf of Sierra Club and ForestEthics, challenges the Department of Transportation’s denial in November of the groups’ petition for an immediate ban on the most hazardous DOT-111 rail tank cars carrying explosive Bakken crude oil.
Oct. 22, 2014 California: Inter-State Oil Company ordered to cease crude trans-loading operations
A month after Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sierra Club challenging the Sacramento air district for rubber-stamping permits allowing Inter-State Oil Company to transfer Bakken crude oil from rail to truck without public or environmental review, the agency reversed course telling the oil company to cease all crude trans-loading operations.
Oct. 21, 2014 New York: Legal petition filed
A coalition of local residents and environmental groups file a legal petition requesting the DEC Commissioner to issue an order prohibiting the receipt and storage of explosive Bakken crude oil in outdated and dangerous DOT-111 tank cars at the Port of Albany.
Oct. 9, 2014 California: Lawsuit filed challenging Alon Bakersfield Refinery
Sept. 25, 2014 Washington: City Council Resolution Passed
Aberdeen City Council passes a strongly worded resolution opposing plans to transport crude oil through Grays Harbor. The resolution has no force of law, but it sends the message that the city opposes the plan to bring long oil trains into the community, store the oil at three Hoquiam tank farms and ship it out on tankers and barges.
Sept. 9, 2014 Illinois: City Council Resolution Passed
Aug. 14, 2014 Washington: Train carrying Bakken crude derails
July 24, 2014 Washington: City Council Passes Resolution
July 2, 2014 Oregon: Lawsuit Filed; Conversion of Ethanol Facility to High-Volume Oil Shipping Terminal
Conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, file a lawsuit charging Global Partners LP with trying to skirt Clean Air Act protections while converting an ethanol facility into a high-volume Columbia River shipping terminal for extremely volatile crude oil.
June 20, 2014 Manitoba: DOT-111s derail in rail yard
June 17, 2014 Washington: City Council Passes Resolution
June 17, 2014 Washington: City Council Passes Resolution
June 17, 2014 California: City Council Passes Resolution
Oakland City Council unanimously passes a resolution that opposes transportation of hazardous fossil fuel materials, including crude oil, coal and petroleum coke, along waterways and through densely populated areas.
June 16, 2014 Washington: City Council Passes Resolution
June 16, 2014 Alabama: Oil tankers derail; mandatory evacuation of surrounding area
June 7, 2014 Pennsylvania: Derailment over Youghiogheny River
May 16, 2014 Minnesota: Legislature passes measure
May 12, 2014 New York: Tankers derail in rail yard
May 9, 2014 Colorado: 5,300 gallons spilled; Groundwater tests find toxic levels of benzene
A Union Pacific 100-car train en route to New York derails near LaSalle, spilling 5,300 gallons of Niobrara crude. Months later, groundwater tests conducted by the EPA show toxic levels of benzene at the site.
May 8, 2014 Saskatchewan: Tankers derail
April 30, 2014 Virginia: 30,000 gallons spilled; Fireballs erupted; 300 people evacuated
A CSX train carrying crude oil derails in Lynchburg, setting off a 200-foot high fireball and prompting the evacuation of some 300 people. 30,000 gallons are spilled, including into the nearby James River.
April 30, 2014 New York: Derailment in rail yard
Thirteen CSX DOT-111 crude tankers derail at the Selkirk Rail Yard in Albany. No spills or injuries reported. The derailment occurred the same day the state government touted an "inspection blitz" of oil trains that was conducted the previous week.
April 22, 2014 California: City Council passes resolution
April 7, 2014 Washington: City Council passes resolution
March 25, 2014 California: City Council Opposes Crude Oil Transport
March 7, 2014 Washington: City Council passes resolution
Seattle City Council unanimously passes a resolution urging the governor and other state regulators to refrain from issuing permits for projects that would increase oil transport until safety, environmental and economic concerns are addressed.
Feb. 13, 2014 Pennsylvania: Train crashes into building; 3,000 gallons spilled
Feb. 3, 2014 Washington: City Council passes resolution
Feb. 3, 2014 Minnesota: 12,000 gallons leaked along 68 miles of track
Jan. 31, 2014 Mississippi: 90,000 gallons spilled; Dozens of homes evacuated
Jan. 27, 2014 Washington: City Council passes resolution
Jan. 20, 2014 Pennsylvania: Train derails; nearby expressway closed
Jan. 7, 2014 New Brunswick: Derailment sets off large fire; 150 people evacuated
A Canadian National Railway train with DOT-111 cars carrying Western Canadian crude derails near Plaster Rock, sparking a large fire. Approximately 150 people are evacuated from their homes for three nights. No injuries reported.
Dec. 30, 2013 North Dakota: Trains collide; Massive explosion set off; 1,400 residents evacuated
A BNSF Railway crude train crashes into another train near Casselton, causing a massive explosion and leading to the evacuation of 1,400 nearby residents. An estimated 400,000 gallons of crude are spilled.
Dec. 11, 2013 Illinois: DOT-111 declared "public nuisance"
Dec. 10, 2013 New York: Train derails
Dec. 3, 2013 New York: Oil Tanker collides with Truck; Driver seriously injured
Nov. 13, 2013 Washington: Proposed Crude Oil Export Terminals Permits Reversed
The Washington Shorelines Hearings Board reversed permits for two proposed Grays Harbor crude oil export terminals for failure to address significant public safety and environmental issues. Earthjustice represents the Quinault Indian Nation in its efforts to block the projects due to their threats to cultural and environmental values.
Nov. 8, 2013 Alabama: Train derails; Fires burn for more than a day
A Genesee & Wyoming train carrying North Dakota crude derails near Aliceville, exploding and burning for more than 18 hours. About 748,800 gallons are thought to have spilled, including into surrounding wetlands. Four months later, oil was still oozing into the water.
Oct. 19, 2013 Alberta: Train derails; 100 residents evacuated
A Canadian National Railway train carrying crude and propane derails near Edmonton. No crude was spilled, but an explosion and fire resulted from leaked propane. About 100 nearby residents were evacuated and a major highway was closed.
July 6, 2013 Quebec: Runaway train derails; 47 people killed
47 people are killed and nearly the entire downtown area is destroyed, when a runaway Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train derails, spilling 1.6 million gallons of crude oil and exploding in the tiny town of 6,000 residents.
June 27, 2013 Alberta: Train derails; nearly falls into river
A Canadian Pacific Rail freight train carrying petroleum distillates derails near Calgary after a bridge fails. Emergency personnel rushed to save train from falling into river. No injuries or spills reported.
May 21, 2013 Saskatchewan: Trail derails; 24,000 gallons spilled
April 3, 2013 Ontario: Train derails; 16,500 gallons spilled
March 27, 2013 Minnesota: Train derails; 20,000 gallons spilled
Jan. 24, 2013 Saskatchewan: Train collides with road grader; one person dies
Jan. 19, 2013 Alberta: Freight train collides with oil tanker; Fire engulfs locomotives
What You Need To Know
Q. What are DOT-111 and CPC-1232?
DOT-111 tank cars have been in service in North America for several decades and were designed to carry liquids such as corn syrup. When involved in derailments, these 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, a 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?
Earthjustice has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, challenging the new tank car 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. A group of local governments have also filed a challenge, and the American Petroleum Institute has brought a lawsuit of their own.
The various legal challenges will likely be consolidated before one court of appeals. A decision is not expected before 2016. (See the latest on all oil train news from Earthjustice.)
(Q&A last updated on May 14, 2015.)