This week people gather at 60 events across North America to mark the third anniversary of the Lac Megantic oil train disaster. Stand organizes the Stop Oil Trains Week of Action to help raise the voice of communities who oppose these dangerous, unnecessary trains. In 2016, elected officials joined our call for a stop to oil trains.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Oregon Governor Kate Brown are challenging federal railroad officials on the safety of trains carrying millions of gallons of explosive, toxic crude oil. They join Oregon Senators Wyden and Merkley, Washington Senator Cantwell, and New Jersey Senator Booker on a long and growing list of state and local elected officials who understand that the oil trains rolling through American cities and towns are too dangerous for the rails. Or, in the words of New York Senator Chuck Schumer, a year ago, "a reckless gamble that we just can't afford to make."
Concern about these dangerous trains spiked again following the June 3 derailment and explosion in Mosier, Oregon. A rare windless day in the Columbia River Gorge prevented the fire from spreading to nearby homes or a school just a few hundred yards away. But the potential threat, and the inability to contain and control an oil train fire, was not lost on first responders to the inferno of explosive crude in Mosier. "What's at stake?" asked Mosier fire chief Jim Appleton in an interview with the Oregonian:
"Do we want to test the abilities of a small town again to respond to Armageddon? Or just understand, it's not worth the risk. It ain't worth shareholder value. I know the railroad's argument. But we need to tell them: You can't ship that cargo."
July 6 marks the third anniversary of the fatal oil train disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec, that took the lives of 47 people. In the three years since that 2013 disaster we've seen more than a dozen major oil train derailments and explosions in the US and Canada. Mosier was another close call. In January Christopher A. Hart of the National Transportation Safety Board recognized the threat when he said, "We have been lucky thus far that derailments involving flammable liquids in America have not yet occurred in a populated area... But an American version of Lac-Megantic could happen at any time."
The Washington State Council of Fire Fighters first asked for a ban on oil trains in 2014, and followed up their request in a June 8 letter to Governor Inslee citing the danger from an oil train fire:
"...evidence keeps growing that there is no safe way to transport Bakken crude. A derailment and fire in dry wildfire fuels with high winds could easily overwhelm available personnel and equipment in many parts of our state and grow into a conflagration of immense proportions."
A week after the Mosier derailment and fire Governor Inslee responded to federal railroad officials that he was not "interested in symbolic measures," and called for a halt to oil trains traveling through Washington until railroads meet six specific safety improvements. In a joint letter to the administration Oregon Senators Wyden and Merkley requested, "that the FRA place a moratorium on unit trains transporting crude oil and other hazardous materials through the Gorge until the FRA has issued a final investigative report for the Mosier accident."
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown was even more direct, calling for a moratorium on oil trains in the Columbia River Gorge, "until the strongest safety measures are put in place by federal authorities to protect Oregonians."
The railroads and oil industry, meanwhile, have ignored calls for safety improvements or a halt to oil train traffic while investigations move forward. Railroads point to common carrier requirements and federal preemption to ignore requests from fire fighters, local and state, and even federal, elected officials. Railroads like Union Pacific and even more so BNSF, and their owners, like Warren Buffet, cast morality aside and hide behind the thin veil of federal authority to avoid dealing with safety concerns about oil trains.
Imagine oil trains running down the Columbia River Gorge in between the burnt out skeletons of the derailed Mosier oil train cars cast along the sides of the tracks. It actually happened. Oil continues down those same tracks and thousands of miles of other rail lines in our cities and towns without any changes to the inspection system that led to the conflagration in Mosier. The exclusion of safety and fire officials, and all local and state elected officials, in decisions about rail safety leaves the protection of the 25 million Americans living in the blast zone tracks in the hands of the Warren Buffet and the other railroad executives of the world who care more about making even more money than public safety.
On July 6 more than 100 groups and elected officials delivered a letter to President Obama asking him to stop crude oil trains. These deadly trains add nothing to our energy security, but they undermine the safety of millions of Americans who live in the dangerous oil train blast zone. It's time to end this reckless industry before our luck runs out.