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Inside the Movement to Stop the Oil Industry's 'Bomb Trains'

Activists say that carrying oil on trains leads to far too many explosions, derailments, and disasters.

Peter Moskowitz

Peter Moskowitz

Protestors in Albany gathered to stop potentially-threatening fracked oil trains on May 14. Photo by Sipa USA via AP

If you're one of the approximately 180 families who live in the Ezra Prentice Homes, in the poor, industrial southern section of Albany, New York, oil trains are a daily fact of life.

These trains rumble through as they move crude oil from North Dakota and elsewhere to the northeastern US. Sometimes, the trains pass 15 feet from people's homes. South Albany isn't unusual among poor communities throughout the country—many are located near train tracks and highways, oil refineries, and other sources of environmental danger—but what makes it notable is that residents seem fed up and ready to do something about it. Earlier this month, as part of a series of protests against the fossil fuel industry called Break Free, thousands marched through the streets of Albany to protest residents' environmental concerns. Some activists blocked the railway as part of a action calling for an end to the transportation of oil by rail in Albany and elsewhere.

Activists have argued that carrying flammable oil on trains, which they sometimes call "bomb trains," is inherently dangerous: Not only do the trains emit diesel fumes in the poor neighborhoods they pass through, the trains have in the past tipped over or crashed, leaked, exploded, polluted rivers and wetlands, and in some cases killed those who live nearby. Albany residents say the tracks are a part of a long history of "environmental racism," meaning if they were located in a white community the oil trains would be shut down by now. And they say the railway behind the Ezra Prentice Homes needs to be shut down for the sake of South Albany's current residents—to do otherwise is to be waiting for disaster to strike.

"People thought you could put whatever you wanted here because it was a poor black community, and now things are coming to a head because of that," Dorcey Applyrs, a member of Albany's Common Council (the equivalent to a city council) who represents the area, told VICE. "Having these trains here, we're putting economics over human lives."

The question of how safe it is to carry oil by rail has become hotly debated in the last few years. Thanks to fracking and other technologies that have opened up entire new fields of oil production, US producers extracted a record amount of the stuff last year. But pipelines take years to build and are expensive, and so much of the task of carrying crude has been left to tanker cars on railways. The amount of oil carried on US railways has increased 40-fold in the last eight years, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit that advocates for green energy and environmental protections. Most of the time, those cars travel through rural areas, but often they pass through industrial sections of cities, often in poor, predominantly black areas. According to critics, no matter where these trains travel, they're inherently dangerous.

"There have been accidents, and there will be more accidents," Albert Ratner, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Iowa, told VICE. "How much damage is done is just a question of where it happens and how fast the train is moving."

According to the environmental group ForestEthics (now called Stand), 25 million Americans live within a mile of a train track, which means they would need to be evacuated if an oil train derailed and caught fire.

The most deadly oil train accident occurred in 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when a train derailed and exploded, leveling nearly half of the city's downtown and killing 47 people. It led a $342 million settlement for the victims, and inspired federal changes in both the US and Canada to how trains are regulated.There haven't been any deadly oil train disasters in the US in recent years, but there have been close calls, including an accident last year outside Galena, Illinois, during which 21 cars carrying crude oil from North Dakota derailed and caused a fire that burned for days.

"It's something we knew was a possibility, and when it happens we know it's extremely dangerous," Mark Moran, the City Administrator of Galena, told VICE. "We were extremely fortunate to not have any fatalities."

"America's freight rail industry has recognized the concerns that have been expressed and have taken them very seriously," Ed Greenberg, a spokesperson for the American Association of Railroads, which represents railway owners, told VICE. "Our industry recognizes that continuous improvement is needed."

Last year, federal regulators released new rules that forced train operators to report new data to regulators about their operations, upgrade many of their cars to safer models, and slow their trains down to 40 miles per hour in densely populated areas. (The Department of Transportation did not return a request for comment for this article until after it published*) But the rule has a loophole that allows the older, less safe cars to be used on shorter trains. And environmental groups were quick to point out that oil trains can still be punctured and explode at speeds below 40 miles per hour, something a Federal Railroad Administration Office official admitted in 2014.

"We call the trains soda cans on wheels," Jared Margolis, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity, said. "Those things puncture just from being tipped over. If they can create a car that's safe, then they should do that. If they can't, then they should stop shipping oil by rail."

Less clear is what should be done to get the trains off the tracks. Environmentalists are in a conundrum because lobbying for an end to oil-by-rail could mean that more oil is shipped through pipelines. Pipelines are harder to shut down than trains and tend to stay in operation for decades—propping up an oil transportation infrastructure that activists would like to see scaled back, not reinforced.

That's led activists in Albany and elsewhere to not only call for an end to oil trains, but an end to oil production itself. Many protesters at the Albany gathering last week were there not only to protest "bomb trains," but to encourage lawmakers to transition beyond fossil fuels completely. The protesters, joined by residents of the Ezra Prentice Houses and others, held signs conveying the damage caused by oil train accidents: "30,000 gallons in James River," "47 People Vaporized," "No one should die for profits."

"It's not just the trains, but the system itself," Vivian Kornegay, another Albany Common Council member, told VICE. "The people living next to the tracks are getting sick, breathing diesel fumes from the trains and getting asthma," plus the risk from the trains. "More oil is the last thing we need."

*After this article published, the Federal Railroad Administration responded to our request for comment. They sent us the following:

"For the last three years, the Federal Railroad Administration and its sister agency have been focused on increasing the safety of crude oil transported by rail and the safety of communities along these routes. While we have restricted the speed of crude oil trains to increase safety, speed restrictions alone will not completely solve this problem. That's why we have taken a comprehensive approach that in addition to speed restrictions includes requiring stronger tank car shells and full-height head shields to reduce the risk of punctures; thermal blankets that help tank cars withstand a pool fire; and electronically pneumatic brakes that activate on all tank cars simultaneously to stop trains faster and keep more tank cars on the track."

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