With the White House’s recent rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, oil and gas energy analysts are already projecting a modest boost for the crude-by-rail business, despite the fact that U.S. State Department officials indicated on November 6 that the extent to which railways may become a major form of transport for Canadian tar sands into the United States still “remains uncertain.”
But according to a new report out this week from Waterkeeper Alliance, ForestEthics and Riverkeeper, since 2008, oil train traffic has increased more than 5,000 percent along routes “leading from oil fields in central Canada, the Great Plains, and the Rockies to refineries and crude oil hubs along our nation’s coasts.” The environmental advocacy groups’ report describes the significant threat posed by explosive crude oil “bomb trains” traveling across aging and neglected U.S. rail infrastructure.
This dramatic increase in oil train traffic has come with an accompanying uptick in tank car derailments, oil spills, fires, and explosions across the United States and Canada. The July 6, 2013, oil train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, was among the deadliest of these incidents, killing 47 people. According to the report, more oil has spilled from tank car trains in 2013 than in the previous 40 years combined.
Two separate oil trains derailed in Wisconsin in early November. On the morning of November 7, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe oil train derailed in Alma, Wisconsin, spilling nearly 20,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River. Another Canadian Pacific Railway train derailed in Watertown, Wisconsin, the following day, spilling 1,000 gallons of crude oil and prompting the evacuation of at least 30 homes.
The new report, “Deadly Crossing: Neglected Bridges & Exploding Oil Trains,” examines how increased traffic is stressing and degrading the nation’s rail infrastructure. From July to September 2015, U.S. watchdog groups documented potential problems at more than 250 railway bridges in 15 states along known and potential oil train routes. They identified what they call “areas of serious concern,” such as rotted, cracked and crumbling foundations, or loose and/or broken beams, at 114 of those bridges.
Waterkeeper and Riverkeeper groups, comprising a national network of environmental and clean water advocates, also said they observed “flexing, slumping and vibrations that crumbled concrete” when oil trains traveled across certain railway bridges.
“A Catastrophic Impact”
Rob Walters, with the Pittsburgh-based Three Rivers Waterkeeper, said the organization had conducted 22 citizen inspections of bridges located on three rivers in the region, all of which, according to Walters, showed signs of deterioration. He highlighted one bridge built between 1901 and 1904 for its particularly rapid decay. The Fort Wayne Railroad Bridge on the Allegheny River connects the North Shore of Pittsburgh to its downtown area.
“If a train carrying crude oil derailed, spilled or exploded on the Fort Wayne Railroad Bridge, it would have a catastrophic impact on the Pittsburgh community, its citizens, its economy and its environment,” Walters said during a press call.
The bridge is what Walters called a major artery connecting the Midwest to the East Coast experiencing a high volume of train traffic. He observed crumbling concrete and exposed rebar on each of the piers that connect the bridge to the riverbed. He also said the main steel support of the bridge has extensive rust and holes throughout its underside.
Walters outlined the risks these problems pose to fishermen, joggers, cyclists, and sightseers who travel the trails provided along the banks of the river and pass under the bridge via boat. Furthermore, citing census data, Walters said that more than 7,500 residents live in the downtown Pittsburgh area — within the one-mile blast zone of a potential oil train explosion.
The Pittsburgh bridge is just one example of a potentially dangerous situation that, according to the report, exists in dozens of major urban areas across the United States. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has estimated that 24 train accidents have been caused by “misalignment or failure of railroad bridges” during the past 10 years.
According to an online mapping tool created by ForestEthics using railroad industry data, more than 25 million Americans live within a one-mile blast and evacuation zone of a potential oil train fire. In more rural areas where such oil trains pass, residents worry that a federal emergency response to a potential disaster will not come quickly enough.
But even without derailing, spilling or exploding, doctors have warned that proximity to oil trains poses a serious risk to the health of communities, increasing rates in cancer, asthma and cardiovascular disease through exposure to particulate matter released as emissions from trains.
Advocates say that a lack of federal oversight has exacerbated the high risks already associated with oil trains and the neglected infrastructure they travel over. According to the report, “There is no national inventory of rail bridges, no mandated submission of inspection records, and no required minimum engineering standard for rail bridges.”
Calls for Greater Federal Oversight
Under the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act and DOT regulations, federal regulators relinquished authority to conduct bridge inspections to the owners of the estimated 100,000 railway bridges across the United States. Thus, railway operators essentially monitor themselves, determining crucial oversight aspects, including safe load limits, schedules for inspection and maintenance work, and design and engineering standards with virtually no outside oversight. The government cannot compel a bridge owner to make repairs to aging infrastructure. Additionally, federal guidelines do not specify a minimum or universal design standard for railway bridge construction or maintenance.
Another waterkeeper, Krissy Kasserman of Youghiogheny Riverkeeper, also in Pennsylvania, said she had to bring the state of the deterioration of the bridges she observed to her local officials, who were previously unaware of the potential problem.
Riverkeeper boat captain John Lipscomb, who looked at bridges over the Hudson River in New York, said his organization worked with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) to bring attention to the degraded bridge over a Hudson River tributary, calling on the Federal Railroad Administration to take action. Senator Schumer called for more federal oversight previously this year, saying there aren’t enough Railroad Administration bridge auditors. There are only seven inspectors to audit reports from railroad operators for the nearly 100,000 estimated bridges they own in the United States. According to Schumer, just one of those inspectors is responsible for New York and 13 other states.
As far as state oversight goes, Lipscomb said Schumer provided Riverkeeper with a letter from a railroad operator to the state Department of Transportation simply saying that all its bridges were found to be safe. No further action was taken, according to Freedom of Information Act requests made by the group.
“Do 18-wheeler truckers on our highways get to self-inspect their trucks? Do any of you … get to inspect your own cars? If you have work done in your home, don’t you have to run it by an electrical inspector? Of course,” Lipscomb said. “And that’s done because we’re trying to protect society from failures. That’s missing with rail bridge inspections. It’s … completely unacceptable that the rail industry gets to inspect its own infrastructure while moving cargo that is of such enormous risk to American citizens and the environment.”
While the Waterkeeper inspectors are not civil engineers, some of the advocates, like Lipscomb, did enlist people with engineering backgrounds to examine the infrastructure. In New York, Lipscomb said an engineering professor suggested that the bridge over a Hudson River tributary be taken out of service. But a Railroad Administration auditor who inspected the bridge after Schumer brought attention to the potential problem found that the bridge currently doesn’t have any problems that would cause “immediate failure.”
While Riverkeeper inspectors may not be engineers, the railroad owners inspecting their own bridges may not be much better. Even though federal regulations require that “competent persons” examine bridges and provide management plans, those same regulations fail to require minimum qualifications, such as an engineering degree, to determine “competence.”
The risks posed by oil trains traveling on aging and degraded infrastructure are not limited to the human populations that live in the potential blast zones. They also threaten the aquatic life and marine ecosystems of the many waterways that rail bridges cross over, which could become potentially contaminated from a spill.
The advocacy groups are calling for the federal government to expand oversight by implementing a national inspection program, rather than simply auditing inspection reports from railway owners. They are also pushing for the government to create a national inventory of railway bridges, share safety information with emergency first responders and the public, and immediately halt oil train traffic on any bridge with known safety problems.
Some lawmakers have been stepping up recently to address these concerns. After the oil trains derailed in Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) has called on the House and Senate conference committee to include several oil train safety amendments she has introduced to the long-term federal transportation bill currently being negotiated. Her provisions would require the Railroad Administration to obtain and keep inspection reports from railway bridges, and to make those reports accessible to first responders and municipalities.
Additionally, groups like Riverkeeper and ForestEthics are mobilizing in their own communities. This week, health officials, public safety experts, and residents are expected to gather in Pittsburgh for the first oil train safety conference designed for citizen activists and first responders.
“Oil trains are rolling over crumbling bridges,” said Matt Krogh, who is ForestEthics’s extreme oil campaign director. “We can’t wait for the next derailment, spill and explosion to act.”