They span over a mile long containing up to 140 tank cars and as much as 4.5 million gallons of some of the nastiest forms of crude oil on earth, pumped from “extreme” extraction operations in North America’s new oil boomtowns. They cross rivers and transverse open plains, wilderness forest and some of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Occasionally, with alarmingly increasing frequency, they careen off into rivers, catch fire and explode, or both. When spilled in water, their heavy oil exterminates river ecosystems. When they blow up, they release the fires of hell, with one oil train accident in 2013 wiping out most of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and gutting its downtown. That’s when folks started referring to these explosive steel snakes as “Bomb Trains.”
This is one of the dark sides of North America’s fossil energy boom—the backstory on cheap fuel. The uptick in oil production comes from using extreme means to recklessly drill oil, using carbon-intensive methods like fracking to extract environmentally dangerous low grade oils such as Bakken crude from Montana and North Dakota. This oil, pumped from the dolomite layer of the Bakken geological formation, which also underlies portions of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is more volatile than conventional oils, with a lower flashpoint for explosion. When rail cars started to blow in Lac-Mégantic, The National Post reported a blast radius of over one half mile.
The United States National Transportation Safety Board estimates that about 400,000 barrels a day of this oil make the trip to Atlantic Coast refineries, with 20 to 25 percent moving through the port of Albany. Much of this Albany-bound oil moves across New York utilizing rail lines passing though the hearts of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica. Oil from Canada crosses the Niagara river, entering the US both in Niagara Falls, and via Buffalo’s 142 year old International Railroad Bridge, as well as taking a northern route, dropping down from Quebec on tracks passing through the Adirondack Park, including about 100 miles of Lake Champlain watershed shoreline. Non Albany-bound oil, such as some shipments from Buford, North Dakota to Houston, Texas, also take an unlikely route through Buffalo.
Though much of this oil winds up moving through New York State, federal law limits the state’s authority to regulate it. While crude oil can be stabilized to make it less volatile in transit, whether or not it receives such treatment is up to the discretion of regulators in the state that produces it—not necessarily the states through whose cities it will roll. Most of the explosive Bakken crude coming our way originates in North Dakota, where the energy industry all but owns the legislature, fertilizing the state’s anti-regulatory zeitgeist with a healthy dose of cash. The end result is, whatever passes for a state government in North Dakota fails to meet even Texas’s modest safety standards for anti-explosive fuel stabilization.
The Association of American Railroads reports that, thanks to the Bakken and Tar Sands oil booms, the amount of oil moving across the country by train has increased 45 fold (4,500 percent) from 2008 through 2013, with the volume continuing to increase through 2014 and 2015. As a result, more oil spilled from oil trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in the preceding 37 years. The number of accidents increased in 2014, and seems to be steadily increasing this year, with oil trains derailing and blowing up last week in West Virginia and northern Ontario. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation now predicts an average of ten derailment accidents a year involving crude oil or ethanol tank cars over the next twenty years, “causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.” It’s no longer a matter of “if” there will a catastrophic oil train derailment.
Both the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and the United States Department of Transportation recommend evacuating a one half mile perimeter around accidents involving railroad tanker cars carrying flammable liquids. Karen Edelstein, a researcher and the New York Program Director for the FracTracker Alliance, mapped oil train routes across the state, adding overlays for this evacuation zone, and for schools and hospitals. Her data shows that statewide, there are 502 public schools situated within potential evacuation zones. In Buffalo, about one third of the population live within one half mile of these bomb train routes, and 27 public schools and eight private schools lie within potential evacuation perimeters as well. This includes PS 42, which serves students with disabilities, and is located adjacent to the track. Sister’s Hospital and the Buffalo Zoo are well within this perimeter, which skirts the Buffalo State and Erie County Medical Center campuses. If we freak out when it snows, how well are we going to handle what appear to be atomic fireballs, should one of these trains blow up?
While the profits from this oil boom have been privatized, much of the cost associated with reckless extraction have been externalized, meaning dumped on the public. Aside from the obvious environmental costs that we and future generation will have to bear, are the less visible emergency preparation costs that every school, hospital and municipality within a half mile of bomb train routes must now cover. In Buffalo, this means 35 schools need to work with local emergency services providers to develop plans to quickly evacuate students not just from buildings, but from neighborhoods, all with a possible backdrop of explosions, sirens and billowing smoke.
While it’s not statistically likely that a train will explode in Buffalo or any other specific place, it is a certainty that trains will keep exploding with increasing frequency across the U.S. and Canada. This means that cash strapped municipalities across the continent will have to develop plans to address a catastrophe we know for certain will befall some of our communities.
Addressing this risk involves not just planning to respond to it, and maintaining an emergency response network capable of responding, but also working to prevent such a catastrophe. A report from the Cornell University Community and Regional Development Institute points out that this involves a multitude of responsibilities, such as monitoring surface rail crossings to prevent vehicle train collisions that can lead to a derailment. Such responsibility, the report notes, usually falls to local police forces that often lack the personnel to do this. Likewise, federal regulators lack the personnel to inspect the nation’s rail infrastructure, and state Departments of Transportation lack the resources to adequately inspect bridges crossing railroad tracks. All of these costs fall not on the oil or railroad industries, but on government agencies, with much of this work not being done due to budget constraints.
What little planning there is to deal with an oil train explosion is alarming to read. A three car fire requires, according to the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control , 80,000 gallons of water for laying down a fire retardant foam blanket and cooling adjacent rail cars. Hence, the state recommends, if there is “NO life hazard and more than 3 tank cars are involved in fire OFPC recommends LETTING THE FIRE BURN unless the foam and water supply required to control is available” [sic.]. The wording here is ominous, with the availability of the required foam and water not being the default expectation, but instead, simply a possibility. This language is there for a reason, however. The Auburn Citizen, in central New York, quotes Cayuga County Emergency Management Office Director Brian Dahl, who, in response to a question about his county’s ability to respond to an oil train fire, unequivocally states, “The amount of foam and water you would need, there’s just not enough in central New York.”
While oddly inferring that maybe you should put the fire out if you have adequate foam and water, even if there is no “life hazard,” the state’s instructions don’t mention what to do if there is a life hazard, but no foam or water. Also troubling is their inference that if more than three cars are on fire you should just give up. Last week’s fires in Ontario and West Virginia saw seven and fourteen cars ablaze respectively, with each fire burning for over 24 hours. In all caps, the state’s instructions warn responders,
“All resources must be available prior to beginning suppression.”
It doesn’t give any suggestions as to what to do if you can’t move the water to the fire, or have the foam necessary to smother a dragon. None of the suggested responses are tolerable should an oil train explode in an urban environment.