Towns like Lac-Megantic, Quebec where one year ago this month an oil train derailed and exploded, killing 47 people and incinerating the central business district.
If you live within half a mile of railroad tracks, chances are that you are among the 25 million people living within a blast zone. But since railroad and oil companies are afraid they'll lose money if you are actually informed that you are in harm's way, the government has not seen fit to issue color-coded terror threat alerts to vulnerable populations. People might protest, or otherwise interfere with deregulated late capitalism.
But thanks to the efforts of environmental groups, information on routes and deadly cargo is slowly dribbling out anyway. One group, ForestEthics, has even devised a simple tool whereby you can type in your locale to instantly discover how at-risk you and your loved ones really are:
Albany has become such a main hub of Bakken crude and Alberta tar sands shipments that it is now known as "Houston on the Hudson." Residents of an apartment complex located just yards from storage cars protested and got city and state officials to demand disclosure and protection from the oil and transport companies, who've been loath to provide them. Most government officials, it turns out, have only been learning of the dangers from the citizens and activist groups themselves. Or, so they say.
Riverkeeper notes that the oil is also being transported by barge. The whole scenic Hudson Valley area that I call home has become a virtual oil pipeline. As have the homes of countless others:
Nationwide, shipping crude oil by rail has jumped sixfold since 2011, according to American Association of Railroads data, and rail shipments from the Bakken region have jumped exponentially since 2009. This ad-hoc transportation system has repeatedly failed—and spectacularly. The fires resulting from derailments of Bakken crude oil trains have caused fireballs and have burned so hot that emergency responders often can do nothing but wait—for days—to let the fires burn themselves out. In just over six months, four major Bakken crude oil train derailments resulted in: the death of 47 people and the total destruction of several square blocks in the village of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013; an intractable spill in fragile wetlands in Aliceville, Ala., in November 2013; the evacuation of thousands of people living within a five-mile radius after a fireball spewed caustic smoke in Casselton, N.D., in December 2013; and, an explosive fire in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, in January 2014. The same type of crude oil, carried by the same type of train cars involved in these derailments, are traveling through New York State today.
New York has had three near misses: In December 2013, a train carrying empty oil tanker cars collided with a truck at an at-grade crossing in West Nyack, Rockland County. In December 2013, a train carrying crude oil derailed in Cheektowaga, near Buffalo. In February 2014, a train with 97 empty oil cars derailed just north of Kingston, NY, near populated areas, a business district .As McClatchey Newspapers reports, more crude oil was spilled in train derailments last year than in the previous four decades combined:
Including major derailments in Alabama and North Dakota, more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars in 2013, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
By comparison, from 1975 to 2012, U.S. railroads spilled a combined 800,000 gallons of crude oil. The spike underscores new concerns about the safety of such shipments as rail has become the preferred mode for oil producers amid a North American energy boom.
The federal data does not include incidents in Canada where oil spilled from trains. Canadian authorities estimate that more than 1.5 million gallons of crude oil spilled in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on July 6, when a runaway train derailed and exploded, killing 47 people. The cargo originated in North Dakota.
Nearly 750,000 gallons of crude oil spilled from a train on Nov. 8 near Aliceville, Ala. The train also originated in North Dakota and caught fire after it derailed in a swampy area. No one was injured or killed.The federal Department of Transportation recently issued a weak order that simply requires companies to inform local and state governments when the bomb trains will be barreling down the tracks. It doesn't require stronger cars, but merely "suggests" better construction. And companies only have to be transparent when more than a million gallons hurtle through at a time. As in war, limited collateral damage is apparently acceptable.
Only two days after this "emergency" May directive from the federal government, there was another derailment near Denver, resulting in the spill of more than 6,000 gallons of crude oil. Google "oil train" on any given day and chances are good you'll find a derailment story only a day or two old.
State officials, meanwhile, have been busily signing "confidentiality agreements" with rail executives, promising not to disclose the dangers they pose to citizens. Delaware is only the latest state to buckle to industry pressure. State Homeland Security spokesperson Kimberly Chandler whimpered, "The disclosure of this sensitive information to the general public could impact transportation security and public safety."
From the Del Marva News Journal:
Rail companies balked at states disclosing too much information, citing security concerns and commercial confidentiality for their clients.
CSX and Norfolk Southern officials said they sent all relevant information to Delaware per the Department of Transportation's order, but both asked state officials not to disclose any details on crude oil shipments.
"We feel that the disclosure of specific routes, specific amounts, timetables, schedules undermines our competitiveness in this environment," Norfolk Southern spokesman Dave Pidgeon said.In other words, protesters might show up near the tracks and at corporate board meetings. Knowledge might spread throughout the land, destroying both profits and pollution. The flames of greed might be quenched!
As the great DeSmogBlog points out, oil companies and their transportation partners have been quietly lobbying the White House to quash the same safety regulations it pretends to tout. At one recent meeting, industry poobahs complained that strengthening the brake systems on the bomb trains would cut too deeply into their bottom line. They also complained that a proposed regulation requiring that stopped trains be constantly monitored by human beings would be way too costly.
It was an unattended train with bad brakes that caused the Lac-Megantic disaster. And when bad stuff like that happens, you know the story. Mistakes were made, because who could ever have guessed that the brakes were crap? Whoever could have predicted that a renegade down-sloping curve would dare get in the way of crude progress?
In this brutal age of neoliberalism, nothing gets in the way of progress. Even in destroyed Lac-Megantic, the oil trains are coming back.
And meanwhile the culprits have learned that they can always absolve themselves of responsibility by using friendly bankruptcy courts to simply transfer ownership. The politician-bribing plutocrats pocket the change and never go to prison. And the public pays the price.
Until and unless we decide we've finally had enough.