After another fiery near-miss, U.S. opponents of so-called “bomb trains” are chafing at presidential campaigners’ tepid response to their calls for a crackdown on railroad tank cars carrying crude oil like the one that derailed, exploded, and destroyed most of downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec three years ago this week, killing 47 people, orphaning 27 children, and levelling more than 30 buildings.
Economics may be achieving some of what political activism hasn’t. But while fewer carloads of crude are crossing America, those cars aren’t much safer when they run off the rails.
“The grim reality is that we’re one tragic accident away from it being a major political issue,” said Ross Hammond, campaign director at U.S. environmental advocacy group Stand. “What’s so frustrating is trying to get the attention of politicians in the absence of a catastrophic accident.”
Stand estimates that some 25 million Americans live within the potential blast zone of a Lac-Mégantic-type accident.
State and local opposition is especially strong to so-called “unit” trains that carry only crude oil. The use of such trains in the U.S. increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to nearly half a million in 2014, the National Observer reports. At least 21 have derailed since 2013, most recently last month, when 16 rail cars left their tracks while travelling through Mosier, Oregon and caught fire less than 230 metres from the town’s community centre.
In the wake of that derailment, Oregon became the first U.S. state to call for a ban on oil trains in its territory—a step that would require the U.S. federal government to act. Oregon’s largest city, Portland, passed a resolution opposing any new infrastructure for transporting or storing fossil fuels within its limits. Their moves followed sit-ins and protests against oil-by-rail activity in Albany, NY, Baltimore, MD, and San Luis Obispo County, CA.
The issue is politically challenging, conceded Spokane city council president Ben Stuckert, who wants stricter controls on oil trains. To oppose them “is to appear anti-oil, anti-labour, anti-free trade, and anti-agriculture (an industry that relies on the same rail system).”
But of the leading candidates’ silence on the issue, the Spokane city leader said, “I personally would call it cowardly.”
But candidates may also be calculating that the issue will take care of itself with a drop in oil-by-rail shipments in the last 12 months. The combination of collapsing oil prices, new pipeline capacity in the U.S. upper Midwest, and community opposition has sharply reduced the amount of crude travelling by rail across the United States. Two years ago, according to freight blog FTR Intelligence, oil producers, refiners, and “midstream” operators that actually own most of the rolling stock were running every tank car at their disposal and had signed orders for 100,000 new ones. By this year, 80,000 older tankers were sitting idle, and “new car orders have dropped like a rock.”
That’s affecting how quickly older, thin-walled tank cars are being replaced with sturdier models built to the higher standards introduced in both Canada and the United States last year. In May, DeSmog Blog reported that fewer than 225 new, puncture- and explosion-resistant tank cars had actually been delivered in the first year of the new standard. Shippers face staggered deadlines, running out to 2025, to replace all the older cars in their possession.
As well as aligning its tank car regulations with those in the U.S., Canada stiffened other oil-by-rail safety standards after the Lac Mégantic disaster. The measures have been criticized as insufficient however, following subsequent derailments and fires.