Danger on the Tracks

On July 5, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, a train with 63 cars full of crude oil from the Balkan oil fields in North Dakota experienced brake failure sending the train into the center of town at 65 miles per hour.  When it had reached the center of town the train derailed.  The subsequent explosions and fires detroyed 40 buildings, 53 vehicles and contaminated the nearby river and lake.  47 people lost their lives.  The accident happened in the middle of the night, possibly saving several lives had the town been full of people during the day.  Much of the main part of  town was destroyed.

This accident should be a wake up call for all communities that have oil trains traveling through their cities and towns.  The oil obtained from fracking in North Dakota has a flash point equivalent to gasoline.  One train may have 100 plus tanks carrying the crude oil making it a possible traveling bomb.  The feature photo for this article is a train loaded with tanks carrying crude oil from fracking traveling through downtown Columbus, Ohio.  The train is about to enter a tunnel which travels underground through the center of town.  Many cities and towns have train tracks in highly populated areas.  If one of these trains were to derail and the tanks exploded, are the cities and towns prepared for such a disaster?  Who would oversee the rescue efforts?  Who would be responsible for the cost?  Is the danger posed worth  accessibility to the oil?

I sat in on a hearing in Olympia, Washington where governor Jay Inslee was proposing a fund to have on hand in case of such an emergency.  Executives from BSNF railroad were in attendance.  They stated that in case of a derailment they are the first responders.  They also stated  they can usually have a representative onsite within 24 hours.  Their comment left me with many more questions such as is 24 hours soon enough?  The fund that Jay Inslee created would be helpful if a train were to derail, but it would not cover the enormous expense if the derailment happened in downtown Seattle where the oil trains travel along the waterfront, past football and baseball stadiums and the busy downtown area.  Beside being a danger to the people such an accident might harm, the environmental cleanup would also be a great expense in monetary terms as well as to the local ecosystem.

The Seattle City council came up with a plan after an oil train derailed under a bridge near the downtown area.  That time the city was lucky that no explosions or fires ensued.  The council then realized the city was not prepared for such an accident and came up with a plan.  What the plan does not contain is who would be responsible for paying for damages and clean up.

What can be done to prevent train derailment and accidents involving trains with oil tank cars?  According to the executives from BSNF they have improved the brakes on the trains and are experiencing fewer derailments.  In Lac-Megantic it is thought that having only one employee who had been on the job for a longer than normal work day might have been a large contributor to the brake failure as it was not set correctly by the employee.  Even if safe guards are improved, the danger from the oil produced from fracking remains a great.  Communities with these trains traveling through their cities and towns should prepare an emergency response plan in case of a derailment which would set in motion an organized plan possibly reducing the loss to structures and human life.


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I am a freelance writer and artist living in southern California.

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