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On July 6th Reuters published an article on the potential for a resurgence of moving crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota across the country by rail, due to a judge’s decision to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline over permit issues.
July 6th also was the 7th anniversary of the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec when a train full of Bakken oil from North Dakota derailed and exploded — resulting in 47 fatalities and the destruction of much of downtown Lac-Mégantic.
And while the timing was just coincidence, it is a stark reminder of the dangers of moving Bakken crude (and Canadian crude) oil by rail and the risks that a resurgence of this industry poses to the 25 million people living along the tracks these oil trains traverse.
Seven Years Later and The Same Risks RemainAfter the Lac-Mégantic disaster, regulators in Canada and the U.S. worked to put in place new safety regulations to prevent another such disaster from happening. However, as we have documented here on DeSmog and in my book Bomb Trains: How Industry Greed and Regulatory Failure Put the Public at Risk, the oil and rail industries have effectively blocked or forced the repeal of any meaningful safety regulations.
Regulations for modern electronically controlled pneumatic brakes were repealed by the Trump administration. State regulations to require the volatile Bakken oil to be stabilized to remove the natural gas liquids in the crude oil that make it so dangerous were overruled by the Trump administration.
There still are no regulations about rail track wear and replacement even though track failure is a leading cause of train derailments and is suspected of causing the two most recent oil train derailments that resulted in large spills and fires. There still are no regulations on the length of the trains, even though longer trains derail more often and train operators — the men and women driving the trains — say that longer trains are harder to operate.
And the new tank cars that were supposed to be safer have failed in every major oil and ethanol train derailment they have been involved in to date.
This lack of regulation combined with the active removal of regulations that could actually improve safety should come as no surprise with the current administration. The Department of Transportation (DOT) that oversees rail safety has stated that “DOT’s approach to achieving safety improvements begins with a focus on removing unnecessary barriers and issuing voluntary guidance, rather than regulations that could stifle innovation.”
As the U.S. is facing another potential wave of Bakken oil trains, the industry is essentially being allowed to volunteer to make any safety improvements. And regulations have also been relaxed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the oil industry in financial crisis and the rail companies desperate for any additional carload volumes, cutting corners on safety is a likely outcome for an industry allowed to self-regulate.
And with the potential for a new wave of bomb trains rolling across America, industry lobbyists are already arguing that regulating the oil trains will not improve safety.
Canada’s Oil Trains a “Clear and Present Danger” The opening of the Dakota Access Pipeline (which began operation in June 2017) did greatly reduce the amount of Bakken oil being moved by rail from the peak volumes of 2014 — although volumes had been decreasing already due to oil market economics. At the same time the amount of Canadian oil being moved by rail was rapidly increasing.
And, unsurprisingly, the frequency of Bakken train derailments decreased while Canadian train derailments increased. In December of 2019 a Canadian crude oil train derailed and caught fire near Guernsey, Saskatchewan. In February of this year a second crude oil train derailed and caught fire near Guernsey.
These accidents led an editor at Railway Age to call these Canadian oil trains a “clear and present danger” due to the failure of regulators to address the known risks of moving oil by rail.
The tank cars involved in both of those accidents were the new cars that were supposed to improve safety in derailments but just as in other accidents involving the new tank cars — the results speak for themselves — when the trains derail these new tank cars rupture and large amounts of oil spills. And often catches fire.
The cause of both recent derailments was likely track failure. An investigation by CBC noted that inspectors had reported track safety issues for years along the section of track where both derailments occurred and Ian Naish, who had previously worked as director of rail investigations for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said the track was in “really bad shape” and that “Neither derailment was a surprise at all.”
The rail industry in Canada and the U.S. has successfully fought any attempts to regulate rail wear and replacement.
If there is a new Bakken oil train boom, no one should be surprised when those trains begin to derail and explode.
This article first appeared on www.desmogblog.com
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