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Pipeline On Wheels

Railroad shipments of volatile crude oil into America's cities have dramatically increased, with explosive results.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

Crude-by-rail Rolls into America's Cities

In March of 2014, Andrés Soto confirmed his nagging fears: Mile-long trains loaded with highly explosive crude oil had been rolling through his hometown of Richmond, California, unannounced, since the previous September.

Soto, a longtime activist and organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, had previously heard about the oil industry's push to bring crude-by-rail to the west coast. In late January, his organization came across an industry report highlighting the local rail yard's intentions to allow the practice. The following month, crude-by-rail popped back up on Soto's radar after a woman from La-Mégantic, Quebec, spoke to Richmond residents about how her town was destroyed after 63 tankers filled with explosive crude oil derailed and exploded, creating a fireball that killed 47 people.

Though the woman's eyewitness account terrified him, Soto figured he would deal with the issue if and when it came to Richmond. He assumed, as most people would, that local residents would get plenty of time and opportunity to weigh in on any decision to allow crude-by-rail next to their homes, schools and businesses.

He was wrong.

A Glut of Oil, Brought on By Fracking and Tar Sands

Since late 2012, as hydraulic fracturing and tar sands drilling created a glut of oil, the industry has scrambled to transport as much of it as possible from remote drill sites in North Dakota and Canada to the east and west coasts, where it can potentially be shipped overseas to more lucrative markets. Along the way, these trains run through many small towns and main streets, underneath large cities and over bridges, and even along steep mountainsides and wetlands in pristine wilderness areas like Glacier National Park. But while communities along the tracks take on the risk of these volatile visitors, which occasionally derail and explode, they often aren't told what's in them, or even when they'll be charging through.

"This latest betrayal is just part of a lifelong experience," says Soto, who, as a Richmond native, has seen firsthand the many environmental injustices forced upon residents of this industrial town. The city has around 400 pollution sites and the surrounding area has a high number of industrial accidents, making Richmond's county, one of the most dangerous places to live." Many Richmond residents suffer high rates of asthma, cancer and heart disease. Some of Soto's own family members, who all grew up in Richmond, have been diagnosed with cancer and rare auto-immune diseases.

But the threat of crude-by-rail is not unique to industrial towns like Richmond. Because trains have played such a major role in shaping America over the past two centuries, today you can find them in every kind of community, carrying benign goods like grain, hogs and, of course, us. But with the growth in crude-by-rail, coupled with lax regulations, these icons of American culture are viewed more warily as their foreboding tank cars chug by, filled with crude oil and marked with barely perceptible warning signs.

Oil rail shipments have increased 6,000 percent from 2008 to 2014, which adds up to about 800,000 barrels of oil transported across America per day, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The increase in rail traffic, however, has not been met with increased regulatory scrutiny. For example, oil trains are not subject to the same strict routing requirements placed on other hazardous materials, so while trains carrying chlorine are barred from travel through the middle of cities, trains carrying explosive crude oil can pass through with no problem.

In addition, over the past two decades, the National Transportation Safety Board has warned, to no avail, that older tank cars known as DOT-111's, which make up 69 percent of the U.S. tank car fleet, are prone to puncturing during an accident. These so-called "soda cans on wheels" were first designed in the 1960s to carry harmless materials like corn syrup, yet about 92,000 of them are now used to transport hazardous chemicals (with only 14,000 of those tank cars built to the latest safety industry standards).

Also, fire departments, police and first responders often don't know basic safety information, like whether a train passing through their town will be carrying extremely flammable Bakken shale oil from North Dakota, or tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, which is notoriously difficult to clean up. As a result, many communities learn of crude by rail projects by accident—or because of one.

Map of major freight lines and major accidents since 2012.
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. View interactive map »
Data: ESRI; Federal Railroad Administration; Bureau of Transportation Statistics

Lack of Environmental, Public Review, Despite Accidents

Given the lack of regulations and increased rail traffic, it's not surprising that crude-by-rail accidents have skyrocketed, spilling oil, starting fires, causing explosions and tragically costing lives. The largest accident happened in July of 2013 in Quebec, but since then a number of derailments have occurred, including an accident in Lynchburg, Virginia, where a train carrying crude oil derailed in the downtown area, creating a 200-foot high fireball, prompting the evacuation of some 300 people, and spilling crude into the nearby river.

Yet, shipping crude-by-rail has, so far, escaped significant environmental and public review. This is partly because it is so new and partly because many of the permitting decisions—decisions that will impact thousands of citizens—are being made at the most local of planning levels. Only recently, in response to community outcry and litigation, have these decisions been brought to the public's attention. And where full and complete environmental and public health reviews have begun, citizens, officials and scientists have largely been opposed to these projects and their risks.

Soto and Peesapati stand near crude oil rail cars. The city of Richmond is in the background.
Soto and Peesapati stand near crude oil rail cars. The city of Richmond is in the background.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

Richmond residents found out from news reports that crude-by-rail was going through their city only after local media spotted the trains in Richmond's rail yard, about a half-mile from an elementary school. State officials with the California Energy Commission didn't know about the project, and the only agency that did was the local air quality district, which issued an operating permit to Kinder Morgan in February of 2014 without any notice or public process. Though the California Environmental Quality Act requires regulatory agencies to conduct full environmental impact assessments of such projects, the air district avoided its responsibilities by putting the project in the same category as vehicle registration and dog licenses.

"I was flabbergasted," Earthjustice attorney Suma Peesapati told local television station KPIX after it broke the story. "This just happened under the cover of night."

Earthjustice quickly sued Kinder Morgan and the air district on behalf of environmental justice and conservation groups for ignoring the well-known and potentially catastrophic risks to public health and safety, and for turning a blind eye to permitting the project in an already polluted and overburdened low-income community.

Similar stories of "discovering" these pipelines on wheels can be found all across the country.

In Hoquiam, Washington, a small town in Grays Harbor, people were largely unaware of plans to turn the major estuary, which is home to commercial and tribal fishing, into an industrial crude oil zone.

Members of the Quinault Indian Nation, outraged at plans to build three crude oil shipping terminals, which threaten the tribe's treaty-protected fishing and gathering rights, turned to Earthjustice after local agencies permitted the projects based on the conclusion that they would have no significant environmental impact.

An aerial view of Grays Harbor, WA, where planned crude oil terminals threaten treaty-protected fishing and gathering rights.
An aerial view of Grays Harbor, WA, where planned crude oil terminals threaten treaty-protected fishing and gathering rights.
Photo courtesy of Quinault Indian Nation

"It makes no sense whatsoever to allow Big Oil to invade our region," says Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation. "We all have too much at stake to place ourselves square in the path of this onrushing deluge of pollution, to allow mile-long trains to divide our communities and jeopardize our air, land and waters."

The Quinault and a group of conservation organizations appealed the permits. And in October of 2013, the Washington Shorelines Hearings Board agreed with the tribe, rejecting the permits for the proposed terminals for failure to address significant public safety and environmental issues. Two of the terminal projects have begun full environmental review processes, and the tribe and local community are fully engaged in opposing them.

On the other side of the country, many residents of a housing project in Albany, New York, discovered that crude-by-rail was coming only after they started seeing—and hearing—long lines of oil-filled rail cars chugging close to their homes and the community playground. They soon found out that in 2012 Global Companies LLC received state permits allowing it to double crude oil storage and loading capabilities at its Port of Albany terminal.

To access the port—which adjoins low-income communities and a playground and is within blocks of an elementary school, a senior facility and a center for the disabled—trains carrying the explosive crude travel a rail line that passes directly through the heart of the city. Yet, the State Department of Conservation approved the project without requiring a full environmental impact review and without complying with its own environmental justice policy, which requires community participation and input on such proposals.

"Some of our clients can literally stick their hand out of their kitchen window and almost touch the trains going by," says Earthjustice attorney Christopher Amato, who, on behalf of a number of groups sent a letter to the New York Department of Conservation, asking the agency to require a full environmental assessment that takes into account not just the rail project but all of the impacts that will come with turning the Port of Albany into a major oil shipping hub.

In March of 2014, Albany residents successfully convinced the county to halt the expansion plans. The news followed pressure by a broad coalition—including community and environmental groups like Earthjustice.

Crude-by-Rail Proposals Continue, as Communities Take Action

Despite significant pushback from communities, the oil and gas industry continues to ramp up its crude-by-rail operations to take advantage of the current fracking boom around the country. In Washington, Oregon, and California, there are more than a dozen known proposals for new or expanded crude-by-rail capacity.

In addition, certain members of Congress are calling for the lifting or loosening of the ban on crude oil export to other countries.

"Both coasts are in the crosshairs of the oil industry," says Kristen Boyles, an Earthjustice attorney who represents tribes and conservation groups in Washington and Oregon who are fighting crude-by-rail.

In February of 2014, the Department of Transportation took the first initial steps to making crude-by-rail safer now, issuing an order that requires railroads to inform state emergency management officials about the movement of large shipments of crude oil through their states and urging shippers to avoid using older model tanks cars that are easily ruptured in accidents.

Residents applaud at Berkeley City Hall, following a vote in March 2014, opposing a proposed crude-by-rail project.
Residents applaud at Berkeley City Hall, following a vote in March 2014, opposing a proposed crude-by-rail project.
Mauricio Castillo / Earthjustice

In addition, communities, no longer content to just lie down on the tracks and hope for additional regulations, are taking matters into their own hands. In December of 2013, two Chicago aldermen proposed that its City Council declare the DOT-111 tank cars a "public nuisance" and ban them from the city. And in February and March of 2014, city councils in Spokane, Seattle and Bellingham, Washington, passed resolutions requiring greater disclosures by railroads on traffic and routes, while Minnesota and the Washington state legislatures debated rail safety bills. Most recently, the city of Richmond and the neighboring city of Berkeley passed resolutions demanding tighter regulations or outright bans of the shipping of crude-by-rail through their communities.

"We didn't go looking for this fight," says Soto, who has spent much of his life fighting social injustice and shows no signs of slowing down. "But we're going to fight it all the same."  

Above: Communities for a Better Environment Organizer Andrés Soto and Earthjustice Attorney Suma Peesapati look over the railyard in Richmond, where highly explosive and toxic crude oil is being brought into the city.

Written by Jessica Knoblauch
Published on June 2, 2014

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