Friday, July 11, 2014

The Mapping of the Terror Trains

Look a-yonder what's coming down that railroad track. It's the Oil Bombin' Special, and while it's not bringing your baby back, it is most definitely bringing the Bakken. Crude, that is: millions of gallons of highly flammable fracked Bakken oil and Alberta tar sands product are sloshing at breakneck speed through thousands of North American towns, every single day.

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:
For the first time ForestEthics has brought Google mapping capabilities together with railroad industry data on oil train routes across the US and Canada. The tool uses US Department of Transportation guidance for emergency response, identifying the one mile evacuation zone in the case of an oil train fire or a half mile in the case of a spill. The group used census data to estimate the number of Americans living in the one mile blast zone, but the map also shows schools, sports stadiums, town halls, and landmarks across the country within the danger zone.

Oil train traffic has increased by more than 4,000 percent in the past five years, from 9,500 tank cars in 2008 to more than 400,000 in 2013, mostly Bakken crude from North Dakota and tar sands from Alberta, Canada. Derailments, spills, and fires are also on the rise.
My town is "safe," being more than half a mile from the tracks on which the oil is being transported. Of course, the entire rail route from Albany, NY south to a major storage tank facility is just yards from the recently cleaned-up Hudson River. My son's riverside apartment is right in the middle of the blast zone, as is the elementary school both my children attended.

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.


stranger in a strange land said...

I checked the ForestEthics map yesterday via the link to DeSmogBlog in Karen’s sidebar. I also reside about half a mile outside the yellow Potential Impact Zone. So I’m good. Drill baby drill, let it roll baby roll.

In a recent “Daily Show” segment, John Stewart lampooned the illogic of politicians who clamor for bottomless funding for endless wars versus Terror® out of one side of their mouths while simultaneously proclaiming ardently that America is too broke to fund programs of “entitlement and dependency” like medical treatment for veterans injured in said endless wars.

He quipped “Putting aside the questionable contention* that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have kept us safe here at home, you do know terrorism isn’t the only thing Americans would like to be protected from.”

Unfortunately, as the News Journal article linked to in today’s Sardonicky post indicates, deals are being cut to keep the American people in the dark about the danger that these terror trains pose to their communities.

“The politician-bribing plutocrats pocket the change and never go to prison. And the public pays the price.”

That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?


*The statistical insanity of the Global War on Terror demonstrates it to be, on its face, an enormous blunder, fraud, or some combination of the two.

Martin Luther King, Jr. put it lightly when he said “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” He might have replaced the phrase “spiritual doom” with “total fuckdom.”

annenigma said...

While we may not have the large populations here in northwestern Montana, we have beauty, clean clear rivers, and pristine forests. Unfortunately, that's exactly where the railroad barons built their tracks as they steamrolled over the countryside. The oil trains also run along the southern boundary of Glacier National Park and abut scenic rivers wherever they go. If he were still alive, Norman MacLean would be writing A Railroad Runs Through It.

It's heartbreaking to think that Montana passed a state constitutional amendment back in the Gilded Age to limit campaign donations after the railroad, copper, and other robber barons bought the state legislature. But the US Supreme Court decided in their infinite wisdom that Citizens United superseded it and declared it unconstitutional. Imagine - we the people actually outlawed political corruption and SCOTUS undid a century of good law based on lessons learned in favor of protecting corruption in the name of corporate Free Speech. Makes me want to scream!!! Now we have their legacy of railroads and oil threatening us in other ways.

Since I moved back to Montana, I've seen the hundred-car oil trains running right through downtown Whitefish, Montana, a resort community with lakes and mountains within its city limits. Currently, but temporarily, I'm a full o.513 miles from the oil trains, according to Google maps distance calculator. Or at least when I'm home and not downtown which is right directly adjacent to the tracks carrying the oil trains. When I move this fall to a more permanent location 10 miles away, I'll be a full 1.134 miles from them. How much are we supposed to trust in this measly half mile radius? What genius came up with that distance?

The BNSF railroad has been fighting in court to keep their oil train schedule a secret (for security reasons of course as if no one could see or hear them coming), but they recently lost and now have to also help the communities develop a disaster plan. We're supposed to take comfort that we will get to plan for our disasters now instead of just trying to prevent them! Wow, I feel safer already.

One could almost support the pipeline so we wouldn't have oil trains passing through our towns and cities and along our wilderness areas, but it just dumps the problem elsewhere, plus we know we'll end up with both anyway. And the Supreme Court will defend them until their undying day because the Court did what God herself could not do - performed the miracle of vivifying a corporate person into existence. They don't call themselves Supreme for no reason.

My Court is an awesome Court.

stranger in a strange land said...

***woops, here's the link***

Denis Neville said...

I see BNSF oil trains frequently when driving on the interstate near my home and also when hiking on a local trail.

I’ve also seen trains hauling those 737 airplane fuselages made in Kansas similar to the ones dropped into that Montana river, which further adds to the lack of confidence in our national rail system.

Always wonder which kind of oil - non-flammable heavy crude or volatile light crude - is in those tank cars.

Kansas City Southern recently announced it will develop a terminal for heavy Canadian crude oil in Port Arthur, Texas. There will initially be several trains daily from western Canada and they will travel on those tracks.

Looking at the Oil Train Blast Zone map, I see that I live not that far from the US DOT Potential Impact Zone in Case of Oil Train Fire. When hiking, I am smack in the middle of the US DOT Evacuation Zone for Oil Train Derailments. At several spots along the trail, I always feel a bit of trepidation, all those black tanker cars rolling by at such great speed are a bit sinister looking, feeling a sense of dread that if they were to suddenly derail I wouldn’t have a chance – I’d either be squashed like a bug or burned alive.

So far the sight of those multiple oil black tank cars on the tracks seems not to be freaking people out locally.

My grandfather was a steam locomotive engineer for the Milwaukee Railroad (now BNSF) in North Dakota and Montana. So I have an interest in railroading in my blood. Occasionally, I will read, especially Fred Frailey’s blog about railroading.

Frailey’s opposite view on the “Terror Trains,”

“Does anyone feel, as I do, that railroads have lost the message on crude oil by rail to the know-nothings and their best friends, the politicians?


"You always think of something you could have done that you didn't do, but were you unreasonable in how you ran your business up to that point? I think not in this case. I think we were following industry practice." - Edward Burkhardt, CEO of rail company in Lac-M├ęgantic explosion, responding to a question about whether he feels any guilt about the incident.

Pearl said...

The ultimate goal of the NSA is total population control | Antony Loewenstein via @guardian

annenigma said...

My submission for Quote of the Day:

"Today’s grand illusion is of an information age when, in truth, we live in a media age in which incessant corporate propaganda is insidious, contagious, effective and liberal."

From 'On Israel, Ukraine, and Truth, The Return of George Orwell and Big Brother's War' by journalist John Pilger

annenigma said...

Off topic, but this quote by New York Time's Pentagon correspondent Thom Shanker is a real kicker. It explains NYT stenography perfectly.

"The government really needs to get its message out to the American people, and it knows that the best way to do that is by using the American news media," said Shanker. "The relationship between the government and the media is like a marriage; it is a dysfunctional marriage to be sure, but we stay together for the kids."

Denis Neville said...

@ annenigma

"The relationship between the government and the media is like a marriage; it is a dysfunctional marriage to be sure, but we stay together for the kids."

In order to seduce them by “soft paternalism," "choice architecture," or “nudges.” In other words the government's way of tricking us into doing what it wants.

Obamacare’s "nudge" style (more like a shove) policy, because “free markets,” in which citizens are now forced to give substantial percentages of their incomes, using the tax code, to a government-protected private sector monopoly - health insurance companies - is the very essence of Nudge Theory.

After all, pay the health insurance companies, or pay the IRS, we have a choice.

Pearl said...

Maureen's column "Isn't It Rich?" is one of her best to come along. The Clinton saga of how money corrupts is clearly played out in the media but even our liberal readers excuse them and are willing to support their mission to gain a foothold in government affairs. Karen your usual forthright comment was on the mark.
I wonder where Chelsea's husband fits into all this? Of course living in a ten million dollar condo answers that question.
I forgive Maureen her often less than great columns for writing this one and so well.
Buyer beware.

Pearl said...

Now it is gas lines ruining private properties with no choice for owners.
A Pipeline Threatens Our Family Land