Over the last half-decade, North American oil by rail transports have exploded. Literally.
Driven by oil booms in Alberta, Canada's boreal forest and in the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota, the amount of oil hauled over the nation's rail system has surged to more than a million barrels a day.
But the number of fiery derailments has also spiked. There were 38 derailments involving fires and ruptures on the rails in 2014, up from 20 in 2009, even as the total number of accidents declined by 21 percent over the same period.
US regulators are drawing up new rules governing crude by rail shipments that will likely be released this spring. But a fresh series of explosions on the tracks might prove their approach too limited.
"We keep seeing exploding bomb trains on different rail carriers, going different speeds, with different rail cars, with different kinds of oil," said Eric De Place with the Sightline Institute, a non-profit environmental watchdog group. "The fundamentals here are that the whole enterprise is unsafe. I don't know how much more clearly the universe could underscore that point."
Last Saturday, first responders in Galena, Illinois battled flames from a five-car explosion near the Wisconsin border. Eight hundred miles away, in Gogama, Ontario, seven tanker cars caught fire — the second crude train to explode in the Canadian province since February 14th. On February 17th, in West Virginia, a 19-car crude explosion blackened the sky above the town of Mount Carbon. Each of these derailments — and others in Casselton, North Dakota and Lynchburg, Virginia — has left widespread destruction and environmental damage in their wake. In Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013 an oil train went off the rails, exploded, and killed 47 people.
'The proposed rules are almost laughably inadequate.'
Last July, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it was preparing new rules governing crude shipments in order to address growing concern about the safety and environmental impact of the boom in oil by rail shipments. Publically at least, the announcement was met with applause by both the oil industry and railroads.
"Our safety goal is zero incidents," Brian Straessle, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute (API) and a former aide to Congressman Tom Price, a Republican representing Georgia, told VICE News. "Reaching that goal will require meaningful improvements to safety that are guided by science and data as part of a comprehensive approach to better prevent, mitigate, and respond to accidents."
"API supports upgrades to the tank car fleet beyond current designs," Straessle added.
But the draft DOT regulations would only impact a specific type of oil, crude from the Bakken shale region of North Dakota. And they focus on retrofitting or phasing out older model DOT-111 cars from Bakken crude transports.
But, unlike previous derailments, which sparked DOTs drive for safety improvements, the trains that burst into flames in Ontario recently were carrying heavy tar sands bitumen, less flammable than Bakken crude — but flammable nonetheless. In its draft rules, the DOT estimates "about 23,000 cars will be transferred to Alberta tar sands service" as a result of the new regulations and it "expects no cars will be retired." The Canadian government is also implementing crude by rail reforms that are expected to harmonize with those of the US.
In all four derailments since February 14th, as well as the wreck in Lynchburg, newer or retrofitted cars, touted by the industry as safer were involved. These cars, known as Casualty Prevention Circular-1232s (CPC-1232s) already meet one of the possible design specifications the DOT is considering mandating for Bakken transports.
In other words: the type of cars diminish the risk of explosion and rupture have proven to be inadequate.
The railroad industry previously began standardizing the CPC-1232 design, which can apply to a range of car models, voluntarily in 2011. The CPC-1232 standard allows for exposed valves on the bottom of the tankers that often get severed during derailments, spilling fuel, as has often been the case with legacy DOT-111s.
Additionally, the shell casing on older DOT-111s, a key factor in whether the cars will explode, is 7/16 of an inch thick; on CPC-1232s it is a sixteenth of an inch thicker. The DOT is considering another option: mandating 9/16-inch shells. The thicker the shell, however, the less oil fits in each tanker, cutting profits for shippers who have challenged this aspect of the rules proposal.
Still, the American Association of Railroads (AAR), which introduced the CPC-1232 standard, claims, like the API, it is open to reform.
"The freight rail industry has been calling for tougher tank car standards for years and wants all tank cars carrying crude oil, including the CPC-1232, to be upgraded by retrofitting or taken out of service," AAR spokesman, Ed Greenberg, told VICE News. "AAR believes every tank car carrying crude oil today needs to be upgraded and made safer, and we support an aggressive retrofit or replacement program."
But De Place doesn't think any of the DOT's proposed regulations will do much good.
"The proposed rules are almost laughably inadequate," he said. "If American lives weren't at stake, I would take it as comic relief. What they are proposing are very modest tweaks to the existing system and a long phase-out period that will allow the industry to run even the most dangerous cars for years to come."
Under the DOT's current proposal, older DOT-111s carrying Bakken crude won't be ordered off the rails until October 2017.
De Place insists there's a simpler, safer solution. "The government should issue an emergency order suspending the transport of crude oil immediately," he said. "Anything short of that is playing Russian Roulette."
The DOT did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News.
Follow Peter Rugh on Twitter: @JohnReedsTomb