A demand by the environmental organization Riverkeeper to “Stop the Bomb Trains” was once derided by critics as hyperbole. No longer. On Thursday, 21 of 103 railcars carrying Bakken crude derailed, causing some to burst into flames alongside the Upper Mississipi River outside Galena Illinois, the second such accident in two weeks. At this writing, the fire is still burning.
On February 20, EarthDesk reported on the West Virginia oil train explosion and fire, and the growing concern that a catastrophe of similar magnitude will happen here on our local river, the Hudson, where Riverkeeper has called for a statewide moratorium on oil by rail. But the radical increase in oil train traffic has elevated local voices into a nationwide chorus. On the other side of the nation, for example, the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland has echoed Riverkeeper’s call.
According to the Associated Press, there have been at least 22 major oil rail accidents since 2006.:
The derailment comes amid increased public concern about the safety of shipping crude by train. According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by rail jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 in 2014, driven by a boom in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana, where pipeline limitations force 70 percent of the crude to move by rail.
Since 2008, derailments of oil trains in the U.S. and Canada have seen 70,000-gallon tank cars break open and ignite on multiple occasions, resulting in huge fires. A train carrying Bakken crude crashed in a Quebec town in 2013, killing 47 people.
The ruptures and fires have prompted the administration of President Barack Obama to consider requiring upgrades such as thicker tanks, shields to prevent tankers from crumpling, rollover protections and electronic brakes that could make cars stop simultaneously, rather than slam into each other.
The Illinois crash will add to the pressure placed on the Obama administration when the Associated Press reported on an unreleased analysis by the U.S. Department of Transportation last July that predicted deadly and costly consequences due to increased rail shipments of oil:
The federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.
The 207 total derailments over the two-decade period would cause $4.5 billion in damage, according to the analysis, which predicts 10 “higher consequence events” causing more extensive damage and potential fatalities.
If just one of those more severe accidents occurred in a high-population area, it could kill more than 200 people and cause roughly $6 billion in damage.
Riverkeeper is calling for emails and letters to Governor Andrew Cuomo demanding “a moratorium on crude oil transportation.” For more information on that campaign, follow this link.