Bomb Train in South Buffalo March 2015 -photo by Jay Burney
Bomb Train in South Buffalo March 2015 -photo by Jay Burney

Riverkeeper and Buffalo's Bomb Trains

by / May. 22, 2015 6pm EST

WNY ClimateWatch

The oil train transportation of North Dakota’s Bakken crude oil, obtained by hydraulic fracturing (also know as “fracking”), has increased over 4000% in recent years. Oil-trains have also dramatically increased along the rail lines and in the the rail yards of Buffalo and Erie County.

 Bakken crude oil is known as a volatile and highly unstable hazardous product that has been a major factor in catastrophes related to numerous oil-train derailment disasters in recent months. Some of these oil-train derailments have been in urban areas. All of these derailments have created human, environmental, and economic catastrophes.

The trains carrying Bakkan crude have become commonly referred to as “Bomb Trains.”

Since January of this year there have been six derailments of oil-trains in the U.S. All have caught fire with explosive results.  The most recent, on 6 May 2015, occurred in Heimdal, North Dakota where a 106 car train derailed and caught fire. This caused the evacuation of the small town.

You may remember the July 2013 derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec that destroyed much of the community and killed 47 people. The Lac-Mégantic train carried 74 cars. Reports of the event have said that there was a .62 mile or approximately 1 km blast zone. Some estimates are that the total liabilities for that rail disaster could easily reach $2.7 billion over the next decade.

Buffalo’s Bomb Trains

According to an interactive map provided by McClatchy DC News, as many as 35 of these “bomb trains” come through our area every week. This mirrors other organization’s analysis including that of Hudson Riverkeeper. These trains can haul as many as 120 oil tank cars, containing up to 31,800 gallonsof oil, in each car. According to Rita Yelda, a local activist with Food and Water Watch, 75% of everyone in Buffalo live within one mile of one of these train’s paths.

New Federal Rules

On May 1 of this year the USDOT released the Final Rule to Strengthen the Safe Transportation of Flammable Liquids by Rail, which governs some aspects of this oil-by-rail industry.

Among other things, this Final Rule identifies tank car design and braking standards for oil-by-rail. It also addresses speed restrictions and certain information sharing requirements between train operators and government agencies about scheduling and routing.

Hudson RiverKeeper Challenges the DOT Final Rule

This week, Hudson Riverkeeper -not to be confused with Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper- filed a federal lawsuit in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City. The suit closely follows another filed in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by a coalition of conservation and citizen groups that includes Earthjustice, Waterkeeper Alliance, ForestEthics, and the Sierra Club.

According to a statement released by RiverKeeper, “The Hudson River and the Greater New York/New Jersey region, a thoroughfare for up to 25 percent of all crude shipments originating in the Bakken shale oil region, faces a daily risk of spills and explosions that could devastate communities, local economies, drinking water security, and the environment.”

Riverkeeper President Paul Galley said, “These seriously flawed standards all but guarantee that there will be more explosive derailments, leaving people and the environment at grave risk. The DOT completely fails to recognize that we’re in the middle of a crisis – we don’t need bureaucratic half measures that are years away from implementation, we need common-sense protections today.”

In an interview with the Long Island Exchange, Sean Dixon, Hudson Riverkeeper staff attorney said “The rules issued this month don’t contain enough specifics and don’t address the broader issue of crude oil safety on the railways. For example the recent Amtrak crash in Philadephia happened within several hundred feet of a line of tank cars.”

“There’s nothing in this rule that even attempts to address human error.” With respect to early reports out of Philadelphia on the Amtrak derailment “high speed may have been a player,” says Dixon. “So, there’s a lot of ancillary issues with respect to crude safety that aren’t anywhere in this rule.”

Late this week Dixon told WNY ClimateWatch, “much is left out of the DOT rule on crude-by-rail, including the safety of rail bridges and other infrastructure; the need for insurance for crude oil rail carriers, and the need for spill response and disaster preparedness.”

When asked if there are other recourses besides lawsuits Dixon told us, “This lawsuit is necessary to ensure that DOT lives up to its statutory mandate for safety. The series of explosions, fires and spills from crude oil trains – six just this year in North America – have made the danger more than obvious. If rail shipment of crude oil cannot be done safely, it should not be allowed at all. 

Dixon added, “The DOT has the power to issue emergency orders to ban the use of dangerous rail cars immediately, yet it chose a phaseout plan that leaves these accident-prone tank cars on the rails for another 10 years. It rolled back its own order for the disclosure of information about the trains shipping crude oil through communities that could be faced with disaster. The procedures and the substance of the DOT’s rule must be corrected, and the court is our necessary recourse.”

Stay tuned for more updates.

Critique Details

Critiques of the Final Rule from RiverKeeper and other litigants includes such issues as:

The implementation schedule -It could take up to a decade to implement including the replacement the most dangerous tanker cars.

Retrofitted Tank Cars are held to a less protective Standard -Even at the end of the long impelentation schedule only about ¼ of the tank cars in long unit trains will meet the new standards.

Speed restrictions only occur in “high threat urban areas” -The only “high threat urban areas” identified in New York State are New York City and Buffalo. These designations are provided by the Department of Homeland Security and refer to urban areas vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Oil-by-rail risk factors do not factor into that designation. This makes all other communities across NYS, vulnerable to oil-train disaster.

 Earthjustice (because the environment needs a good lawyer) Fact Sheet:

Analysis of 7 Hidden Dangers in the New Federal Oil Tank Car Rule

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