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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one
 

Oil-by-rail issues will only get stickier

By Sara Foss
Monday, May 12, 2014

Trains magazine is not a magazine I’m in the habit of reading.
I was made aware of its existence last spring, when I visited my friend Cindy and her train-loving 7-year-old son, who happens to be a subscriber. And last week I received a copy of the March issue from a reader who wanted to draw my attention to a special report titled “Oil: Railroading’s New Black Gold.”
Over the past few months, I’ve taken an interest in the transport of crude oil by rail through the Capital Region.
I’ve questioned whether the state and federal governments have done enough to address safety and environmental concerns, and wondered about the odds of a derailment. The derailment of an oil train on April 30 in Lynchburg, Va., reminded me that these questions and worries remain.
Curious to see how a magazine for railroad enthusiasts and the railroad industry approached the issue, I flipped to the special report.
Overall, I found it to be a fairly compelling look at how crude oil is reshaping the railroad industry — at how a lack of pipeline infrastructure in far-flung locales such as North Dakota is driving the demand for crude by rail. The article sees the rapid rise in rail shipments of crude in an almost entirely positive light, pausing just once to acknowledge a dark underside.
“The fly in the ointment: the disastrous safety record involving Bakken shale oil on railroads,” writes reporter Fred W. Frailey. “Three explosive derailments in less than six months, all involving oil from North Dakota, expose a problem railroads don’t know how to solve (or even its cause). After all, crude oil isn’t normally thought of as explosive. Yet 47 people are dead as a result, and public mistrust of railroads as safe custodians of this substance is on the rise.”
That isn’t exactly comforting. Because if the railroads still haven’t figured out what the root of the problem is — what causes oil trains to derail and explode — how can they solve it?
If you live anywhere near train tracks, this might be the one question you really want answered.
And as of right now there doesn’t appear to be an answer.
Nobody was injured or killed in the Lynchburg accident, which saw 13 of 105 cars derail — several of which ended up at the bottom of a local river — spilled at least 50,000 gallons of crude oil and forced the city of Richmond to shut down its water supply.
Especially troubling is the fact that many of the tank cars involved in the Lynchburg derailment were a newer model of car, the CPC-1232, regarded as safer than the outmoded model that transports crude into Albany, the DOT-111.
Last month U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued a safety advisory requesting that railroads stop using the DOT-111s. But if the Lynchburg accident teaches us anything, it’s that “safer” tank cars can cause serious accidents, too.
That raises the question: Can transporting oil by rail ever truly be made safe?
I decided to touch base with Sandy Steubing, an Albany resident who belongs to the new group People of Albany United for Safe Energy, or PAUSE, which wants to bring an end to the transport of crude oil by rail.
Steubing maintains that crude oil cannot be safely shipped by rail or pipeline. Up to 150,000 barrels of Bakken crude is transported through Albany by rail each day.
“Our position is that there needs to be a moratorium on trains [carrying oil] and that we need to aggressively switch to renewable forms of energy,” Steubing said. “There’s no way we can [move crude oil] safely, and there’s no way we can do it without contributing to climate change.”
I don’t disagree with Steubing.
In recent months, there’s been a lot of talk from government officials about the need to make shipping oil by rail safer, but it seems to be an inherently dangerous process, fraught with risk. I’m sure it can be made safer, but can it be made safe enough to satisfy me, or all the other people who live within what you might call the blast zone?
It’s doubtful.
If Trains magazine is to be believed, oil by rail is only going to increase.
The magazine paints a portrait of an industry that has no plans to stop transporting oil by rail and expects to serve “refiners in the eastern and western states” that “aren’t reached by pipelines from the U.S. interior and may never be” for a very long time.
I’ve been impressed with PAUSE and the work they’ve done to pressure public officials and raise awareness of the oil trains. But they’re up against some powerful forces. Can they really succeed in bringing an end to oil by rail, fracking and the construction of new pipelines? It looks like we’re going to find out.
In the meantime, I’d like to hear more about what makes an oil train derail, and what you can do to stop it.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net or 395-3193. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.

 

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