BOMB TRAINS ON THE HUDSON
BAKKEN SHALE COMES TO THE RIVER
Story by Jon Bowermaster
Film by Chris Rahm
he sight of long trains made up of one hundred-plus black, cylindrical cars, rolling slowly through cities and towns across North America – often within yards of office buildings, hospitals and schools — has become commonplace.
Few who see them know that these sinister-looking cars carry a highly flammable mixture of gas and oil from the shale fields of North Dakota. At thirty thousand gallons per car, each of these trains carries more than three million gallons of highly flammable and toxic fuel, earning them the nickname “bomb trains.”
I see them on a daily basis in the Hudson Valley, whether stacked up four-deep alongside the thruway in Albany, crossing an aging trestle bridge in Kingston, rolling behind strip malls and health care facilities in Ulster, paralleling the very edge of the Hudson River. Several of the long, ominous-looking trains snake south from Albany to refineries in Philadelphia every day, crossing New Jersey, paralleling Manhattan.
And this oil/gas combo is not just moving by rail: Last year three billion gallons of crude that arrived in Albany by train from the North Dakota were offloaded to tanks and then barges to be shipped downriver. The very first tanker carrying crude oil ran aground, a dozen miles south of the Port of Albany; thankfully its interior hull was not breached.
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The boom in this train traffic – in 2009 there were 9,000 of the black rail cars, today there are more than 500,000 – correlates directly with the boom in fracking of gas and oil across the U.S. Record amounts of both are being pulled out of the ground in the Dakotas, Colorado, Texas and thirty other states and needs to be delivered to refineries. Pipelines take time to build and often run into community resistance; since there are railways already leading in every direction the oil and gas industry has taken them over. In 2010, 55,000 barrels of crude oil were shipped by rail each day in the U.S.; today it is more than 1 million barrels … per day.
During the same period there’s been another corollary, a boom in horrific railway accidents resulting in derailments, spills, fires and explosions. Sometimes they occur near fragile wetlands (Aliceville, AL, November 2013); sometimes in neighborhoods where hundreds must be evacuated (Casselton, ND, December 2013); and sometimes in the middle of a town (Lac-Megantic, Quebec, July 2013, where 47 people were killed in a midnight derailment).
The boom in this train traffic – in 2009 there were 9,000 of the black rail cars, today there are more than 500,000 – correlates directly with the boom in fracking of gas and oil across the U.S.
Derailed DOT-111 oil cars in a devastated Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. (Photo: Paul Chiasson | AP Canadian Press)
Since February 14 a half-dozen of these “bomb trains” have derailed and spilled or exploded, in Illinois, Ontario and West Virginia, leaving widespread destruction and environmental damage in their wake. A half-mile on either side of the tracks is considered within the “blast zone” when these fuel-laden trains crash. Increasingly they are mentioned as potential terrorist weapons.
Efforts to regulate this explosion of shipping by rail has proven difficult. It seems that no one wants to accept the responsibility (or costs) of improving the safety of the cars, the tracks, the infrastructure they run over or the volatile fuel. On May 2 the Department of Transportation issued some new rules and regulations regarding the speed trains can travel at through communities, required updated and safer rail cars and more, but most of the proposed changes don’t take effect for many years. Environmental advocates are not hopeful for much quick change given the powerful lobbying efforts of the gas, oil and rail industries.
BOMB TRAIN ACCIDENTS 2013-2015
- ALICEVILLE, ALABAMA – 11/2013
- CASSELTON, NORTH DAKOTA – 12/2013
- PARKERS PRAIRIE, MINNESOTA – 3/2013
- LAC-MÉGANTIC, QUEBEC – 7/2013
- LYNCHBURG, VIRGINIA – 4/2014
- LA SALLE, COLORADO – 5/2014
- GOGAMA, ONTARIO – 2/2015
- MOUNT CARBON, WEST VIRGINIA – 2/2015
- GALENA, ILLINOIS – 3/2015
- HEIMDEL, NORTH DAKOTA – 5/2015
…the D.O.T. estimates that if this pace of shipping continues there will be fifteen major accidents every year and one of the enormity of Lac-Megantic (47 people killed) every two years.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has previously said there was little the state could do to slow the traffic, but even he is concerned about the possibility of accident; last month the governor’s office issued a complaint after investigating train cars coming into Albany and citing 84 “defects.”
Opposition to new safety rules comes despite that the D.O.T. estimates that if this pace of shipping continues there will be fifteen major accidents every year and one of the enormity of Lac-Megantic (47 people killed) every two years.
“Even if new measures are adopted,” says Roger Downs, an Albany-based attorney with the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter, “it still feels like a half-baked plan to address a wholly inappropriate way to move oil.”