On Friday, June 3rd, a crude oil train traveled through the scenic Columbia River Gorge, a national treasure and one of the most beautiful spots in a country blessed with some of the most stunning places on Earth. It went slowly through the small town of Mosier, Ore. Children sat in class, no doubt looking forward to the weekend, people stopped by the post office, enjoying the rituals of small town life. Then the ground shook. Explosions rocked the area and a plume of thick black smoke snaked its way into the sky. The oil train had derailed a few hundred yards from that school, a few hundred yards from the city center. Four railcars spilled and caught fire -- and tens of thousands of gallons of burning North Dakota Bakken crude created an inferno.
This disaster occurred as Stand and our many allies in the Crude Awakening Network were preparing for the third annual Stop Oil Trains Week of Action, planning dozens of events across the US and Canada between July 6-12 to mark the solemn anniversary of the tragic Lac Megantic oil train disaster on July 6, 2013. The Mosier derailment drove home, once again, why oil trains are too dangerous for the rails. And why Stand is asking President Obama for an immediate ban on oil trains.
Here are the top five reasons Stand, joined by hundreds of groups, community leaders, and elected officials, are calling for a ban on deadly oil trains.
1. 25 million Americans live in the oil train "blast zone".
The US rail system was built to connect population centers, not move millions of gallons of toxic, flammable crude oil. But the oil industry is doing exactly that, sending explosive crude down the tracks right through our cities and by the homes of 25 million Americans. At Stand, we have mapped oil train routes with our Blast Zone map. You can use the map to see if your home, school, or office is inside the dangerous one-mile evacuation area. One clear finding from analyzing America's blast zone: vulnerable populations like environmental justice communities and school children are clearly in harm's way.
2. Oil trains can't be operated safely.
Federal safety standards won't improve oil train safety. Federal legislation, promises by the railroads, and federal regulations- weakened by years of interagency battles between the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board -- have all come to very little. Former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board Jim Hall, in a June 2016 op-ed advocating a ban on crude oil trains, put it simply: "Carrying crude oil by rail is just not a good idea." That's because it cannot be done safely. Period.
Thorough reporting by DeSmog Blog on the weak existing federal regulatory standards and the oil and rail industry's failure to meet them demonstrates there have been no improvements on the safety of the 100,000 unsafe tank cars in the US fleet. Only a few hundred of these 100,000 dangerous tank cars have been retrofitted, and cars updated to the newest tank car standard will still puncture at just a few miles an hour faster than the current tank cars.
After 2025, there may be marginal improvements in the tank cars and procedures associated with oil trains. But trains will still derail, and crude will still leak and ignite.
3. Oil train fires can't be controlled.
When an oil train derails at any speed over the puncture velocity of roughly 10 miles an hour a dozen or so cars typically come off the tracks, decouple and are thrown from their wheels. Tank cars are easily punctured, and the crude (either Bakken or diluted tar sands, both highly volatile) can either self-ignite or be sparked by a nearby ignition source.
Once the spilled oil from an oil train disaster ignites, the primary task of emergency responders is to evacuate the area due to toxic plumes, fire, and potential explosions. We write more about the difficulties here, but Bruce Goetsch, a county emergency manager in Iowa, had this advice: "Make sure your tennis shoes are on and start running." Or listen to the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters, which delivered a letter to Washington Governor Inslee on June 8 demanding an immediate halt to crude rail movement and stating that, "these fires are exceedingly difficult to extinguish, even under unusually ideal circumstances."
4. We don't need the oil these dangerous trains carry.
Oil trains in North America carry extreme fracked crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Saskatchewan, or diluted bitumen from tar sands deposits in Alberta. We don't need any of this crude oil. According to the most recent information from the US Energy Information Administration, shipments of crude by rail represent only 2.5 percent of the 19 million barrel daily US oil demand. At the same time, the US exports more than five million barrels of oil per day. So the US is exporting ten times more than the 513,000 barrels of crude that is moving by rail each day. The crude moving by train contributes nothing to our energy supply. If we stopped all oil trains tomorrow Americans would never notice the difference at the gas pumps - but we would all be safer, especially the 25 million Americans living in the blast-zone.
5. Oil trains are taking us in the wrong direction.
The dangerous, unnecessary, carbon-intensive crude oil moving by train through North American cities and towns is a new phenomenon. Before 2008, crude oil rarely, if ever, moved by train. Oil companies see this oil as the future. We see a future where we leave extreme crude oil in the ground and use decreasing amounts of conventional oil as we transition to 100 percent clean energy.
The climate accords in Paris followed by the April 2016 United Nations resolution put the United States and the rest of the world on a clear, inevitable path toward reducing fossil fuels from our energy supply. These dangerous oil trains carrying extreme oil are, quite simply, not part of that future: they fail the public safety test, the energy security test, and the climate test.
Forty-seven people died in the Lac Megantic oil train disaster three years ago. Only incredible luck prevented Mosier, OR from being another Lac Megantic. It was a dead-calm day in one of the windiest part of the US, otherwise the fire could have spread quickly to more derailed cars, to surrounding forests, homes, and even to the nearby school. This was another close call, one of more than a dozen major oil train disasters over the last three years that could have been much worse. We need to end this unnecessary and unacceptable threat before our luck runs out.
This is not a radical request. In fact, the Governors of Oregon and Washington have asked for a moratorium on oil trains. Join them -- and Stand: Please join us in asking President Obama for an immediate ban on oil trains.