Railcar Carrying Explosive Materials

On December 1, a number of Baltimore residents attended an environmental hearing to weigh in on the potential danger of railroads in area neighborhoods being used for the transport of millions of gallons of crude oil. Houston-based Targa Resources has applied to expand its existing export pier in South Baltimore to store, handle, process and ship more crude oil to East Coast refineries. In fact, according to Chesapeake Climate Action Network, under the proposal “9.125 million barrels of oil every year would be exported out of Baltimore — which means some 12,766 rail cars annually. Broken down further, that’s one train of 35 cars every day running right through the city.”

Record volumes of Bakken crude oil, produced through a controversial process known as “fracking” (read more about the dangers of fracking) are being transported by rail to refineries along the East Coast. According to the American Association of Railroads, there were 9,500 rail cars carrying crude oil in 2008; by 2013 that had increased to more than 400,000. It appears that Baltimore is poised to be a stop along the Bakken byway.

What’s the Problem With That?

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Association (PHMSA), a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has issued a safety alert warning that “crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than the traditional heavy crude oil.” This may be a serious understatement, judging from rail disasters which have occurred over just the last couple of years.

During 2013 and 2014, there were a number of major crude tanker derailments in North America:

  • In July 2013, a 73-car, unmanned train carrying Bakken crude to a New Brunswick refinery derailed as it traveled through a small town in Quebec. Forty-seven people were killed and a quarter of the town was destroyed by fire and explosions. The accident released about 1.5 million gallons of crude oil in the worst rail disaster in North America since 1989.
  • In November 2013, a 90-car train, carrying about 2.7 million gallons of crude oil from the Bakken Shale, derailed near Aliceville, Alabama, spilling about 750,000 gallons into surrounding wetlands; fire and toxic smoke burned for more than a day.
  • In December 2013, a 106-car train hauling Bakken Shale crude oil slammed into a 112-car train carrying grain that had derailed near Casselton, North Dakota. About 400,000 gallons of crude oil were spilled and the explosions, fire, and toxic smoke led officials to evacuate all residents within five miles of the accident.
  • The next month, in January 2014, 45 homes in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, near the U.S. border, were evacuated after a train carrying propane and crude oil from the Bakken shale derailed and caught fire.
  • On January 20, 2014, a 101-car freight train derailed on a bridge in a densely-populated part of Philadelphia. The train had been hauling crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota. Because of a severe snow storm, the derailed cars could not be removed for several days, leaving 80,000 gallons of crude oil dangling over I-76 and the Schuylkill River.
  • The James River in Lynchburg, Virginia, was set ablaze when several train cars jumped the track and plunged into the water on April 30, 2014. The derailment spilled 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the river and caused the evacuation of several blocks in downtown Lynchburg.
  • Unbelievably, on December 30, 2014, Casselton, N.D., was again the site of a crude oil train accident. Fortunately, this time the cars were empty and disaster was avoided.
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Not Just North Dakota

North Dakota is not the only state producing oil from shale fracturing. Pennsylvania is home to several fracking operations, and some small towns in Maryland are already learning to live with the potential hazards on tracks nearby – towns like Perryville, Port Deposit and Elkton.

Not only is the cargo inside these rail cars dangerous – some of the tank cars themselves have been called “Pepsi cans on wheels” and “the Ford Pinto of rail cars.” Much crude oil is transported by DOT-111 tank cars, originally designed in the 1960s. Even though safety flaws in the DOT-111 were acknowledged in the early ’90s, more than 200,000 are still in service, with about 78,000 carrying crude oil and other flammable liquids. They are prone to punctures, oil spills, fires and explosions and lack safety features required for shipping other poisonous and toxic liquids.

In mid-2014, the Sierra Club and Forest Ethics groups sought an immediate ban on DOT-111 cars; when DOT instead proposed that the cars be phased out or retrofitted over a period of several years, the groups filed a petition for writ of mandamus in September 2014, asking the 9th Circuit to force the DOT to respond to their request for an immediate ban because of imminent hazards that pose a threat to human lives. A decision from the appellate court is expected early this year.

Also anticipated in the early months of 2015 is a decision from the Maryland Department of the Environment as to whether Targa Resources will be given final approval to expand their facilities and bring more highly volatile Bakken crude oil through Baltimore.

New York’s Senator Charles Schumer has called the DOT-111 tankers “ticking time bombs.” Let’s hope a frackastrophe in Baltimore isn’t added to the growing list of crude oil shipment disasters.