One of the issues that the panelists at the Risky Business of Oil Trains event (Action 96) described was a safety issue with the 111 rail car. The 111 is a rail car that is frequently used for the transport of hazardous materials, including ethanol and oil. In recent years the rise in demand for ethanol as a fuel additive (that’s a whole ‘nother huge climate and environmental issue I won’t delve into at this point) is driving an increase in ethanol shipments by rail. At the same time, there is increasing interest in shipping oil by rail from our mid-continental oil reserves- one estimate is that the amount of crude oil shipped by rail has increased 25 times over what the amount was just 5 years ago. And these trends mean the use of the 111 rail car is on the rise.
Unfortunately, the 111 has a design flaw that makes it susceptible to tearing open in an accident, releasing hazardous and often explosive and flammable liquids inside. Its steel shell is too thin to withstand severe impacts as can occur during derailments. While the industry has committed to improving the safety of newly produced rail cars, there are still tens of thousands of these earlier designs that are moving through our communities on a regular basis transporting hazardous materials. And while the rate of incidents is low- a 2012 article cited a statistic that more than 99% of hazardous material shipments make it to their destinations safely- the number of accidents has been on the rise, with more than 40 serious accidents since 2000. This summer, an oil tanker derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Canada, killing 47 people. And 111 cars were the type used in the train carrying 2.7 million gallons of oil that derailed and exploded in an Alabama wetland this fall.
The 111 isn’t the only safety issue involved in oil-by-rail. Weaknesses were found in abundance in safety procedures and policies in an audit of Transport Canada that occurred just before the disastrous Lac-Megantic accident. As I talked about in my last Action, there are all kinds of problems with the legal infrastructure we have in place here in Washington in terms of ensuring adequate oversight and emergency response in the case of spills. But meanwhile, continuing to use a car that we have known for decades has a serious design flaw to haul hazardous materials through our communities and across our states does not seem like a very smart risk to be taking.
Though this action is more about rail car safety than climate change per se, it is important to recognize the connection that when oil companies are not taking responsibility for the safety of oil transport, they are passing risks and costs on to the consumer and society at large that are not affecting their bottom line, and therefore not reflecting the real costs of fossil fuel dependence. If we are going to transport oil by rail, saving lives and ecosystems, and asking the companies transporting the hazardous material to take responsibility for the true risks and costs, is important. To this end, I just signed a petition sponsored by Oil Change International that will go to the Department of Transportation by the December 5 deadline for that agency to hear public comment on oil-to-rail safety: you can sign it here.