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Map shows areas most at risk as rail shipments of oil continue to rise

“Since 2008, there have been 10 significant derailments in the U.S. and Canada in which crude oil has spilled from ruptured tank cars, often resulting in huge fireballs,” Joan Lowy of AP reports.

ForestEthics' map shows the half-mile (in red) and mile (in yellow) evacuation zones, used in case of oil train derailment or fire.
Source: ForestEthics

Although it was crafted for advocacy purposes, I think the new “Blast Zone” interactive map of rail routes carrying shipments of crude oil across the U.S., in ever-increasing volumes, is an interesting and significant act of journalism as well.

Ever since the derailment, explosion and fire that killed 47 people in Quebec just over a year ago, we’ve all read about rising concern — and relative inaction — regarding the safety of these shipments. We may even have  read reports like this one, from the Star Tribune earlier this year, noting that as many as six oil trains pass through the Twin Cities on a typical day.

But where, exactly?

ForestEthics, a San Francisco-based campaigner for getting the U.S. economy off oil (among other causes), found the beginnings of an answer in the industry’s own data.

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The March issue of Trains: THE Magazine of Railroading devoted much of its contents to the subject of “OIL: Railroading’s New Black Gold.”

Its maps provided a good, basic guide to which of the nation’s main rail routes were carrying significant oil shipments, according to Eddie Scher, communications director at ForestEthics.

It was then a simple matter to overlay the U.S. Department of Transportation’s recommended evacuation zone of one-half mile on either side of the track in case of an oil train’s derailment (shown in red), and the full mile (in yellow) should an oil tank car catch fire.

25 million live in evacuation zones

Consulting U.S. Census data enabled ForestEthics to estimate that 25 million Americans live within the evacuation belts nationwide. And the Google base map allows users to find schools, hospitals and other community assets that would be at risk in an accident.

As the project took shape, ForestEthics members and friends across the country were able to identify spur lines on which they had seen the oil-carrying “unit trains” of 100 tank cars or more. In other cases the oil trains’ unique characteristics were discernible in Google’s recent satellite images.

Throughout that process, Scher said, the Blast Zone project team has committed itself to maintaining “a very conservative take on it all — we don’t claim that this is a comprehensive map of every route that carries oil. But we are confident in the accuracy of what we’ve been able to show.”

ForestEthics rolled out the project on July 7, a year and a day after the derailment disaster at Lac-Megantic, as part of a “week of action” around the country to call attention to the rising risk of catastrophic oil-train accidents.

So far, Scher told me, there has been little mainstream-media interest in the work. Wire services and networks have generally taken a pass, although smaller-city papers and  some energy- or climate-oriented blogs have been interested. (The Chicago Tribune gave the project a flattering mention on Monday.)

There has been no pushback from the railroads or oil shippers, he said, nor any challenge to the project’s essential accuracy, although some trainspotters have called to ask why their spur isn’t on the map, and a couple of reporters have asked if the work wasn’t a form of fear-mongering.

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Routes not meant for hazardous goods

That’s a question that frankly didn’t occur to me, since I still hold with the notion of giving people the best information available about important matters and letting them decide how to feel about or act upon it. And I think there’s also much merit in these observations of Scher’s about the context of the Blast Zone map:

We have a rail infrastructure in this country that was built around population centers — and what  a good idea, this inexpensive way to move goods and people between cities. But it becomes a very different story when you’re talking about moving hazardous materials, which maybe should be routed to avoid population centers.

You watch, and when there are accidents, almost always — and maybe always — the problems go back to a real lack of caution and a real disregard for public safety. These are failures that could have been anticipated.

In the last five years, rail shipments of oil have gone up more than 4,000 percent — a figure so mind-boggling it’s almost meaningless. And it has happened without any serious attention being paid to what’s necessary to upgrade the infrastructure to move this stuff and move it safely.

We want people to look at all that and ask themselves whether we should really be moving this around by rail — and, if so, then what new safeguards have to happen.

Many of us would agree with that, and yet I must caution against holding our collective breath. From another fine act of journalism, this one committed on Sunday by Joan Lowy of the Associated Press:

How industry resists change

A string of fiery train derailments across the country has triggered a high-stakes but behind-the-scenes campaign to shape how the government responds to calls for tighter safety rules.

Billions of dollars are riding on how these rules are written, and lobbyists from the railroads, tank car manufacturers and the oil, ethanol and chemical industries have met 13 times since March with officials at the White House and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Their universal message: Don’t make us pay for increased safety because that’s another industry’s problem.

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The situation in a nutshell:

  • The Association of American Railroads thinks the best solution to the problem is to require safer tank cars, toughening up the current, three-year-old standards which are only voluntary anyway. Of course, the railroads don’t actually own the tank cars, so they wouldn’t have to pay for new ones.
  • The oil and ethanol shippers, who do own or lease the tank cars, think the voluntary regs and current models (known as “1232” cars) are just fine; they think the problem is best solved by getting the railroads to work harder on accident prevention. (The chemical companies, with a much smaller stake in the fight, think any new requirements should be phased in, with oil cars getting upgraded first and chemical cars going last.)
  • No word from Lowy on how the tank-car manufacturers view the prospect of new, mandatory standards that might requirement replacement of today’s models with brand-new models, but perhaps we can guess. The Renewable Fuels Association is quoted as saying replacement of some 30,000 ethanol tank cars now in use would cost about $3 billion; oil shippers are now running 74,000 cars and adding new ones all the time.

And the argument goes on and on. Meanwhile, as Lowy reports (excerpts lightly compressed):

Since 2008, there have been 10 significant derailments in the U.S. and Canada in which crude oil has spilled from ruptured tank cars, often resulting in huge fireballs.

The railroads argue that better tank cars are needed because the kind of crude oil being produced in the oil boom Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana and in some other parts of the country is more likely to ignite if a tank car is punctured or ruptured in an accident. They want regulators to require that cars for crude have a thicker shell, an outer layer to protect from heat exposure, an outer “jacket” on top of that, and a better venting valve, among other changes.

The American Petroleum Institute, however, says Bakken crude is no different from other light, sweet crude oils and doesn’t need special containers. “We have billions invested in tank cars,” said Bob Greco, a senior official with the American Petroleum Institute. “Every day new, modern 1232 tank cars are coming into service.”

By the end of next year, about 60 percent of the oil industry’s 74,000 tank cars will be 1232s, each bought with the expectation that they would be in use for decades, he said.