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Oil Trains

Volatile Domestic Crude Oil from North Dakota

Trains carrying tank cars loaded with volatile domestic crude oil from North Dakota and other domestic shale fields are increasingly traveling across the nation.  Many of these 100 to 120 car trains are coming to East Coast refineries and ports.  These mile-long trains travel 1400+ miles to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware and the Delaware River port and refinery region on old infrastructure. 

Many of the bridges, tracks and rail terminals are out of date and unsafe, unable to handle this new highly dangerous traffic and many are located right up against homes, towns, farms, cities, water supplies and high-risk facilities like nuclear power plants and hazardous waste processors.  People and these vulnerable places are in harm’s way but don’t even know it. The industry and government is keeping basic information about what is in these tank cars and when and where they travel secret. For an eye-opening interactive map to see how close you are:

Emergency responders are most often in the dark about how to handle accidents.  Oil train fires, which are common in an oil tank car derailment, burn so hot they usually just let them burn and try to keep the flames and oil from spreading, a difficult task and one many fire companies are not trained or equipped to handle.

This domestic crude is high in dissolved gases that ignite easily and the tank cars being used to carry this volatile cargo are substandard, easily punctured and broken open.  The result has been dozens of fiery train derailments and a monumental increase in oil train mishaps, oil spills and damages.  In Quebec, Canada, 47 people died in 2013 when a Bakken Crude oil train slammed into downtown Lac Megantic. 

Facts About Today’s Oil Trains In Our Region

The development of domestic crude oil by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), mainly in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale fields but also in Canada (tar sands and other crude oil sources) and, to a lesser degree, the Utica shale in Ohio, has resulted in a large increase in the transport of crude oil by rail to this region.  The largest single customer of Bakken crude is in Philadelphia – Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery – requiring 2 to 3 mile-long trains every day. The nation’s largest crude by rail yard is also located there.

Crude oil shipments by rail doubled in 2013 from 2012 nationally and Bakken crude went from a few thousand barrels per day to 965,000 barrels per day.  70% of that oil is moved by rail and forecasters expect that to rise to 90% in the near future.  Pipelines are also unsafe and not a safe alternative.

Bakken Shale oil production is expected to continue to increase from 1 million barrels of oil per day (MMb/d) to approx.1.4 MMb/d by 2016. 

The National Transportation Safety Board found that DOT-111 tank cars, the most commonly used, puncture easily when derailed, often exploding. The newer cars, CPC 1232s, have recently exploded as well, making it clear that no tank cars being used to carry Bakken crude today are safe.

Federal agencies say Bakken crude oil has unusually high gas content, low flash point, a low boiling point and high vapor pressure, risking catastrophic fire that is difficult or impossible to extinguish. Experts say it  should be reclassified to require the use of tank cars designed for hazardous material and volatile gases should be stripped from the oil before being transported by train or by pipeline but the government does not require this; new regulations in North Dakota don’t require enough removal to make the cargo safe.

The high gas content means more volatile organic compounds that escape through the inadequate valves on the tank cars while they travel through communities and a greater incidence of leaks and spills, routinely adding to the oil being spilled from these cars.

As crude-by-rail traffic has increased, so have accidents, posing significant risks to life, property and the environment – 113 incidents involving crude-by-rail mishaps occurred in 2013. The most devastating was in Lac Megantic, Quebec where 47 people died and much of the town was blown up. Millions of gallons of oil was spilled in the town and they still haven’t been able to get it all cleaned up.

 The U.S. Department of Transportation predicts an average of 10 derailments of trains hauling crude oil or ethanol per year over the next two decades, costing hundreds of lives and more than $4 billion in damages.

According to Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars in over 35 tank car accidents in 2013, which is more oil than was spilled in the prior 37 years combined.

New regulations governing crude by rail have been adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration but they don’t nearly go far enough. Among the many shortcomings of the newly adopted rules (May 2015): a five year phase-in for new stronger cars and some retrofits as long as ten years; continued use of valves and outlets on tank cars that tend to pop open or burst in accidents, feeding fires and causing substantial spills; a 40 mph speed limit in “high population” areas while most derailments have occurred at much lower rates of speed; allowance of routing through cities and vulnerable high-risk areas; braking safety measures that are inadequate; no reclassification of the flammable and hazardous crude, which would require safer cars under current hazardous materials regulations; and public disclosure of the contents and specifics of oil train schedules are even less transparent than before–hiding more information that some federal officials have argued is not security sensitive.  

What Do We Do? 

We speak up and tell legislators they must make the public’s safety the priority, not companies’ bottom line. The federal government must hear from our federal elected officials that crude by rail cannot continue as it is. We need to speak up together – especially those who live and work along the routes these trains travel and those whose water supplies are in the path of the oil trains.  There is federal legislation that has been proposed, more actions called for by the Federal Railroad Administration, and a network of concerned people has formed across the nation.

Locally, lots can be done to demand safety and protection from the trains’ routine air and water pollution and the potential of catastrophe.  Residents and local government can advocate to discover what is actually going through their communities, how much and when, so they can be prepared and make informed local planning decisions.  Also, local emergency responders and fire companies need assistance to be trained and equipped to address potential accidents, especially derailments, which are occurring with more and more regularity.  In fact, many alog these train routes are no longer askig IF an accidnet will happen, but WHEN.

Considering the dangers of domestic crude oil and the documented very limited production longevity of the North Dakota fracked shale oil wells, a more secure and safe strategy would to leave this oil in the ground where it can be stored for the future. Today the more viable, economical sustainable and environmentally protective path is to leave fossil fuels behind and instead develop a green economy based on renewable, energy-efficient energy sources that will support healthy communities and a thriving biodiverse environment here where the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers come together, bringing us so many environmental and economic benefits if we protect them from degradation and pollution.

Delaware Riverkeeper Network staff is available to speak with residents or town officials and to share information about addressing the dangers and pollution issues presented by oil trains in the region. 


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