Today, two national environmental organizations filed a formal legal petition to compel the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue an emergency order prohibiting the use of hazardous rail cars—known as DOT-111s—for shipping flammable Bakken crude oil. (See FAQ sheet for more info on petition.) The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly found that the DOT-111 tank cars are prone to puncture on impact, spilling oil and often triggering destructive fires and explosions. The Safety Board has made official recommendations to stop shipping crude oil in these hazardous tank cars, but the federal regulators have not heeded these pleas. (See quote sheet of on-record statements by public officials for more information.)
“These oil tankers have been called the Ford Pinto of the rails,” said Ben Stuckart, City Council president in Spokane, Washington. “National Transportation Board members, U.S. Senators, and local officials are all on record on the danger of these antiquated, unsafe rail cars. It’s long past time for the government to take action to protect communities like mine.” Officials estimate between 13 and 16 oil trains a week come through Spokane, a major hub for rail traffic, although those numbers would skyrocket if planned oil terminals on the West Coast are built. Spokane is one of many towns across the country that has seen an organized and strong community opposition to these trains.
In September 2013, in the wake of the deadly Lac-Mégantic and other rail disasters, the federal government began a rulemaking process to set new safety standards for crude oil rail cars. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has stated publicly that the DOT-111s will likely have to be phased out, and even questioned whether the industry’s replacement design is safe enough for U.S. communities. The draft rule is currently under review at the White House. But the groups believe that the process is moving too slowly and likely to drag on a year or more before a final rule is in place. While Secretary Foxx has issued emergency orders addressing other urgent safety issues, all the Department has done to date is urge shippers to use the safest tank cars in their fleets. Immediately banning the use of DOT-111 tank cars to ship Bakken crude would reduce the risk of punctures and oil spills by over 75 percent, according to rail industry estimates.
“The continued use of potentially unsafe DOT-111 train cars is a disaster waiting to happen. The people of Albany County are standing up today to ask the federal government take swift action to improve rail safety,” said Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy. “In light of recent incidents in North America, a strong response from the federal government is needed to protect the public.” Trains carrying Bakken crude oil arrive daily into the Port of Albany, like many other towns across the country. Firefighters and first responders have hurried to train for impending disasters and increased risk.
“These exploding oil trains are in our backyards, where our kids play,” said Charlene Benton, president of the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association in Albany, NY. “We’re putting our children’s and our neighbors’ lives in jeopardy here. Over the last three years, we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of these dangerous oil trains coming through our community. Our community has organized against these oil trains because we don’t want to be the site of another catastrophic disaster. We need a national emergency ban of these oil rail cars.”
The recent surge in U.S. oil production, much of it from Bakken shale, has led to a more than 4,000 percent increase in crude oil shipped by rail since 2005, mostly in long oil trains with as many as 120 cars and over 1.5 miles long. The Bakken crude has proven to be more explosive than shippers represented. And the Bakken crude has been shipped in the most dangerous tank cars on the market—the DOT-111s. The result has been oil spills, destructive fires, and explosions when oil trains have derailed. More oil spilled in train accidents in 2013 than the total in 1975–2012 combined. Canada has taken steps to ban many DOT-111s immediately and is phasing them out of hazardous transport altogether, which will shift even more of these tank cars to the U.S.
The petition follows closely on the announcement that the oil and rail industries have reached their own compromise proposal on rail safety, one that would only seek to slowly phase out dangerous DOT-111s over three years, and that would propose a weaker standard for new rail cars than the industry had previously proposed.
Meanwhile, it is estimated that 25 million Americans live in the dangerous blast zone along the nation’s rail lines. View a map of the nation’s rail lines and local actions against oil-by-rail and a map showing your proximity to an oil rail line.
The petitioners are Sierra Club and ForestEthics, represented by Earthjustice.
- The legal petition
- Maps of the nation’s oil rail lines:
- Crude-by-Rail Across the United States: Railroad shipments of volatile crude oil into America’s cities have dramatically increased, with explosive results. Find out where major crude-by-rail accidents have occurred—and the communities that are fighting back.
- Oil Train Blast Zone: When oil trains derail we all pay the price. How close are you and your family to a disaster waiting to happen? Use ForestEthics’ Blast Zone map to find out and take action.
- Fact sheet of Q&As about today’s legal petition
- Quote sheet: A compendium of public officials’ on-record statements about rail safety and oil
AVAILABLE FOR COMMENT
Ben Stuckart, Spokane, WA City Council President: (509) 710-9611
Charlene Benton, Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association, Albany, NY: (518) 472-0201