It took nearly four days for the fires to burn out after a train carrying crude oil derailed in a small West Virginia town last Monday. In the midst of a winter storm, hundreds of residents were evacuated from their homes while two water plants were shut down and power outages stretched on for more than 24 hours. Nearly 68,000 gallons of oily water have been removed from containment trenches along the Kanawha River.
The accident came less than 48 hours after a similar disaster spilled 189,000 gallons of crude in a remote area of Northern Ontario. According to a Department of Transportation (DOT) study, such derailments are expected to take place an average of 10 times a year for the next two decades, causing $4.5 billion in damages and potentially killing hundreds of people.
The predictions are part of the department's legally mandated cost-benefit analysis of implementing new safety standards for transporting crude and ethanol by rail. A draft of the report was first published in August but was overlooked until an Associated Press report on Monday.
The department predicts there could be 15 derailments in 2015 alone if no regulatory changes are made, with the rate declining to about five such accidents a year by 2034. It predicts 207 total derailments by 2034, including 10 "higher consequence events" causing significant damage and potential fatalities.
'I would issue an executive order saying no more oil by rail, period.'
About 16 million Americans live within a third of a mile of the routes used to bring crude to refineries on the coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, the AP reported. Just one severe accident in a highly populated area could kill 200 people and cause about $6 billion in damage.
Earlier this month, the DOT sent updated safety regulations for the shipment of crude by rail to the White House for review. They could include retrofitting or phasing out old tanker cars known as DOT-111s. Industry representatives have said this process could take up to a decade.
"The rail safety rulemaking is a top priority for this Department," Suzanne Emmerling, a spokesperson for the DOT, told VICE News. "We have been fully engaged and will continue to place our full attention on getting a final rule in place as quickly as possible and ensure it is done right. The February 16th derailment serves as yet another reminder of the urgency of the issue at hand."
Ed Greenberg, a spokesperson for the American Association of Railroads (AAR), told VICE News the industry supports tougher tank car specifications and has been advocating for years for improvements. "We feel the federal government's long-awaited rules will not only provide certainty," he said, "but also chart a new course for ensuring the safer movement of crude oil by rail."
Greenberg declined to comment on the DOT's derailment predictions.
The new standards could also impose stricter speed limits on trains with outdated braking systems and improve emergency training for first responders, who are often unable to fight the intensely hot fires and are forced to let them burn out for days.
"If I could make the Obama administration do anything, I would issue an executive order saying no more oil by rail, period," Eric de Place, policy director at the Sightline Institute, told VICE News.
"We can reduce the risk, but not by a whole lot," de Place said. "The enterprise right now is so fundamentally risky and unsound that you can do things that make it seem like it's getting a lot safer, but it's still risky and unsound."
The tank cars that derailed in West Virginia and Ontario were a model known as CPC-1232s, which were introduced in 2011 as an improvement to the decades old DOT-111s. A 2014 derailment and fire in Lynchburg, Virginia, which spilled more than 29,000 gallons of crude oil into the James River, also involved the newer tank cars, de Place said.
"At the end of the day, you can play Russian Roulette with two bullets in the chamber or with one bullet in the chamber," de Place told VICE News. "But both of those are a really bad idea."
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