It’s becoming a familiar story. Another oil train has flown off the rails. Its cargo of crude oil, fracked from the Bakken shale formation out west, burst into flames. The crash occurred Monday amidst a snow storm in Kanawha county, near the town of Boomer. The fire was reportedly still burning this morning, nearly 24 hours after the crash.
It remains unclear how much oil spewed into the Kanawha River, or whether it is safe now to drink the water in the villages surrounding the wreckage. One thing that is certain is that this disaster was entirely preventable.
One of the few rays of light in a bipartisan congressional budget bill that passed last December — from a government that otherwise continues to devote the bulk of its revenue to military spending — was a mandate for the Department of Transportation (DOT) to issue new regulations governing the transportation of crude-by-rail. On the heels of several fiery derailments — Casselton, North Dakota, Lynchburg, Virginia, and Lac-Megantic, Quebec — Congress set a January 15 deadline for the new regulations, which were specifically to deal with DOT-111 tankers, the most common form of crude transport.
That deadline came and passed while the DOT quietly announced the new regulations won’t be finalized until May. But transportation officials have known for decades these cars are unfit for the carry highly flammable materials such as Bakken crude.
Case in point, a 1991 letter from James Kolstad, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board to the American Petroleum Institute. Kolstad warns DOT-111s possess weaker shell casings compared to other tankers, but “are, nevertheless, used to carry hazardous materials that can pose a substantial danger to life, property, and the environment.” Citing a case study that found 54 percent of DOT-111s discharge their product on derailment, Kolstad calls for the Petroleum Institute to work with railroads, the chemical industry, and the DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration to “expeditiously improve the packaging of the more dangerous products (such as those that are highly flammable or toxic, or pose a threat to health through contamination of the environment).”
That letter was written 24 years ago and DOT-111s are still being used to transport highly flammable and toxic materials.
Under U.S. administrative code DOT has the authority to halt Bakken crude transports today and to take DOT-111s off the rails for good. The fact that they continue to operate without strict guidelines raises serious doubts regarding the department’s independence from the industries it is supposed to regulate, along with public safety concerns that loom large.
These bomb trains, as rail workers have accurately nicknamed them, are passing through Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, Seattle and other major U.S. population centers on a daily basis. A derailment in these regions, would have disastrous consequences.
As the current strike on the part of the United Steelworkers over health and safety at U.S. oil refineries showcases, organized labor can play an important role in reform. Thirteen different unions represent railroad employees in the U.S. and Canada and since 2004 Railroad Workers United (RSW) has sought to bring them together over common grievances. This March, RSW is pairing up with environmental organizations such as System Change Not Climate Change to host conferences in Richmond, California and Olympia, Washington that will take up overlapping environmental, work and public safety concerns.
North Dakota’s fracking boom has bolstered the number of crude cars on U.S. rails up from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 258,541 in the first half of 2014 alone, according to the Congressional Research Service. Rail and refinery employees play an integral role in the supply and distribution of oil. If regulators at the DOT won’t do their job, perhaps railroad workers shouldn’t either. Did somebody say, strike?