Six years ago, the Quebecois town of Lac-Megantic went up in flames after a 72-car train carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region derailed and incinerated a small downtown area, killing 47 people who were caught in the 0.6 mile blast radius.
Activists from the Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains joined other environmental groups called Empower NJ in a rally on the anniversary of the disaster to commemorate those who were lost. They voiced ongoing concerns about the transportation by rail of oil, ethanol, and other volatile materials.
This is one piece of Empower NJ’s advocacy effort. A statewide transition to 100 percent renewable energy is on its agenda, with a demand that Gov. Phil Murphy impose a moratorium on proposed power plants, pipelines, and compressor stations, including two power plants in North Bergen and Kearny.
After the Lac-Megantic tragedy, there were several oil train derailments and a few detonations in Canada and the U.S. They were in mostly remote areas, resulting in oil spills but no casualties.
Safety measures for crude-oil-by-rail transport were on the agenda as the U.S. began relying on domestic natural gas, rather than fuel imported from other countries. The U.S. Departments of Transportation, Homeland Security, and the Transportation Security Administration regulate oil transport.
While there is a 99.99 percent success rate in rail shipments of hazardous materials in North America, critics argue that freight trains 1.5 miles or longer—carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil— are not safe enough.
One rail line that carries crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale region is CSX, which runs along the Jersey side of the Hudson River in Bergen and Hudson counties.
Calling for caution
Paula Rogovin, a co-founder of the Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains (CBUOT), has been at the forefront of a local fight against crude oil shipments through New Jersey’s most populous region.
“We’re calling attention to a tragedy to talk about rail safety,” Rogovin said. “Meanwhile, regulations have been rolled back, making our trains even more dangerous.”
Amid other rule changes designed to increase productivity for fuel transporters, Rogovin referenced President Donald Trump’s recent executive order, mandating that not just crude oil, but natural gas, will be allowed on railways in less than a year.
“We want to move toward renewable energy,” Rogovin said. “We really have to change course.”
CBUOT and its partner groups have called for a number of short-term solutions. They want tracks to be inspected more frequently. They call on fuel exporters to chemically stabilize crude oil that gets shipped through the state to reduce volatility. They want rail lines to have infrastructure in place to deal with potential oil spills.
Tanker car concerns
The 50-year-old DOT-111 tanker car is widely used to transport oil. While it’s been retrofitted to meet transportation requirements, critics argue that they should be replaced with more expensive tank car models designed to contain flammable substances, such as the DOT-112 or DOT-114.
With the growth in crude-by-rail shipments domestically, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has flagged DOT-111s as unfit to contain crude oil. Their recommendations, however, are not legally binding.
CBUOT supported a New Jersey Senate bill, which required companies including CSX to notify nearby first responders of the shipment schedules of oil trains. That bill was vetoed twice by then-Gov. Chris Christie, who said that making such information public would be a security risk. Oil trains traveling through densely populated areas could be targets of terrorist attacks.
In 2016, there was a federal investigation of CSX in Bergen County. The Federal Railroad Administration discovered 13 defects along the tracks which carry oil trains. Track defects are considered a leading cause of the massive derailments in North America since the U.S. fracking boom that started more than a decade ago.
CSX: ‘Safety, security are number one’
The CSX website suggests that the company has employed a number of safety measures in transporting hazardous materials, maintaining that it follows guidelines for public and environmental safety.
The company stated that rail-accident training was made available to more than 7,000 first responders in recent years at local fire stations and online.
“The hands-on and classroom safety training helps strengthen CSX’s partnership with first responders and provides a higher level of emergency readiness,” the company said in a statement. CSX reports that it coordinates with state homeland security officials who have access to a secure online network to monitor rail security issues.
CSX representatives say that local first responders may request information on oil train shipments. But the company will not publicize New Jersey’s shipments, as nearby states require them to do, due to security concerns.
The company’s track record in the number of derailments is no worse than any other U.S. rail company. But its transport of hazardous materials has caused increased scrutiny from national media, the public, and legislators.