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The Bomb Train Next Door

by Susan Hellauer

The first of a two part series about dangerous cargo that regularly rumbles through Rockland.

A railroad crossing is a common thing in the villages near Nyack. The bell and flashing lights incite that little squirt of adrenalin . . . “get across, and don’t be late for school again.” Your mind’s eye then sees fiery explosions, mangled bodies in mangled trains, cars and trucks. . . You glance at your kids in the rear view mirror, and you stop in plenty of time, ready to wait it out, patiently or not.

Crude oil train passing through Rockland County.  Photo Credit:  Riverkeeper

Crude oil train passing through Rockland County.
Photo Credit: Riverkeeper

The freight cars that roll past might carry propane, sulfuric acid and chlorine gas. Or, in the last couple of years, they might be 100+ black tanker cars carrying volatile light crude from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, Montana and south central Canada. Up to 30 trains like this roll through Rockland each week carrying more than a million gallons of explosive liquid, past shopping malls, dense residential areas, your drinking water and your kids’ schools.

Since 2010, aggressive hydraulic fracturing has made billions of barrels of raw petroleum accessible from the Northern High Plains. But while it might now be easier get it out of the ground, it’s not any easier getting  the crude oil to market. Existing pipelines are filled and environmental concerns in response to pipeline leaks have slowed down construction of new pipelines to carry crude to big refineries on the Gulf, West and East Coasts of the United States. Incidents like the 2010 Enbridge rupture in Michigan that spilled almost a million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River have raised public awareness of pipelines.

This map, published by the United States Energy Information Agency (May 2015) shows the movement of crude oil by rail in the U.S. in 2014.

How crude oil was moved across the US by rail in 2014.
Source: United States Energy Information Agency.

Rail transport in tanker cars offers greater flexibility using an existing infrastructure of freight lines. New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia refineries get the greatest proportion of crude shipments despite being farther from the oil fields than refineries on the West and Gulf Coasts. That’s because California’s strong environmental regulations regarding hazardous cargo and refinery construction make compliance costly and time-consuming: a 101,000 gallon oil pipeline spill in Santa Barbara County last month won’t make it any easier. Gulf Coast refineries are already responding to a glut of pipeline crude by offering lower prices for Bakken, according to a McGraw-Hill Platts Special Report on Oil.

East Coast refineries are hungry for raw product, so the long train journey from the Dakotas to New Jersey and Philadelphia (via the CSX “River Line” through Rockland County) makes economic sense for the merchants of Bakken crude.

Crude by rail . . . a known hazard

In 2013 the amount of crude oil shipped by rail increased dramatically.  The U.S. Dept. of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) says that 1.5 million gallons of crude oil were spilled from rail cars in 2014, almost twice as much as was spilled in the preceding 37 years combined.

Lac Megantic (Quebec) burning in July, 2013. Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Lac Megantic (Quebec) burning in July, 2013. Photo Credit: Wikimedia

But it took major loss of life to turn all eyes to the dangers of crude oil trains. At Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013, an unattended trainload of Bakken crude slipped down a hill, derailed and exploded burning most of the town center to the ground, resulting in 47 fatalities.

That 2014 PHMSA report also predicted 15 mainline crude oil and ethanol train derailments in 2015. With five derailments resulting in spills, fires and explosions, and at least six other oil and ethanol derailments and collisions already, 2015 is on track to meet or exceed that alarming prediction.

The issues

Safety issues of crude-by-rail include:

  • Tanker car age, maintenance and safety: The most common tanker car, known as the DOT-111, has long been considered by many, including the National Transportation Safety Board as inadequate for safe transport of hazardous and explosive cargo. In May the USDOT responded to the recent rash of crude train accidents requiring that these tankers be phased out by 2020. Local and national officials and environmental groups have criticized this as taking too long to correct this inadequacy.
  • Freight train speed: In May 2015, the USDOT also set a speed limit of 50 mph for trains with 35 or more tankers of flammable liquids like Bakken crude. In highly populated urban areas the limit is 40 mph (in New York State: only Buffalo, Yonkers and New York City). But even the improved DOT-117 tanker is only rated to withstand a 12 mph side collision (as in a moving tip-over) without rupture.
  • Volatility and explosive potential: According to PHMSA, Bakken crude has a lower flashpoint and more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than other types of crude, increasing its explosive potential. There are ways to address this but, since freight railroads are self monitoring, it would be difficult to know which particular tanker cars are more readily explosive than any others. And there have been cases of mislabeling in some recent oil-train accidents.
  • Lack of real-time information for first responders: CSX and other rail freight companies have been reluctant to give live, real-time information about the location and exact contents of trains containing explosive hazardous materials, citing the danger of terror attacks. In a derailment, explosion and fire, this lack of knowledge can be fatal. State officials and local first responders are demanding real-time information about trains and cargo.
  • Rail infrastructure safety and maintenance: Federal agencies, like the USDOT and its subsidiary, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), audit safety inspection results from railroad operators, but conduct no regular inspections themselves. Freight railroads monitor and inspect themselves, and report the results to the appropriate agencies. Recent surprise FRA and New York State inspections of rolling stock and infrastructure have turned up serious hazards and violations.

Next time: What our government agencies, officials, legislators, and environmental watchdog groups are doing to protect us; and what you need to do to keep yourself and your family safe.

Susan Hellauer is a Bronx native and Nyack resident. She has been a volunteer with Nyack Community Ambulance Corps since 2001, and now serves as board member and Corps secretary. She teaches music and writing at Queens College and is a member of the vocal ensemble Anonymous 4.

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