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April 09, 2014

Crude-by-Rail Dangerous to Communities

Lac-Megantic-Crude-TrainJuly 2013 train derailment and explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec. Photo by Paul Chaisson/The Canadian Press.

By Devorah Ancel, Staff Attorney, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program

Imagine five, ten, twenty trains, 100-cars long, moving through your neighborhood each week, bringing constant rattling and diesel fumes into your home. A small obstacle in the tracks might cause a derailment, overturning cars and spilling toxic crude into yards and the local water supply. Those train cars could even explode, which would almost instantaneously decimate your neighborhood.

No community should have to experience these problems, but they are the reality for hundreds of towns across North America, as the oil industry sends ever more fracked oil down outdated and overburdened rail lines. As a result, loss of life and property and environmental devastation from catastrophic rail accidents have become an expected "cost of business" throughout North America.  

As prodigious quantities of volatile crude oil comes out of the ground in North Dakota, other parts of the Midwest, and the Rocky Mountains, railroads are rapidly becoming the principal mode of transporting this hazardous substance to coastal refining hubs, including the San Francisco Bay Area. In the past five years, the amount of oil transported by rail has skyrocketed from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 carloads in 2013. In 2013 alone, Northern California experienced a 50 percent increase in transport of crude-by-rail.

Unfortunately, improvements to our nation's aging rail infrastructure have not kept pace with this oil boom on the railroads. In 2013 alone, more oil spilled from rail cars than in the past four decades combined. The National Transportation Safety Board has weighed in, warning that our existing rail infrastructure is woefully inadequate to the task of transporting highly volatile fracked crude, and our existing safety regulations do not protect communities along these rail routes. The most tragic example: a July 2013 derailment and train explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec (pictured above), that took the lives of 47 people and leveled 40 buildings.

The next crude-by-rail disaster is only a matter of time, and the Sierra Club Environmental Law Program will not wait for a catastrophic event in California to happen -- we are taking action now. Our initial efforts have met with success, as our legal and technical comments on proposals to expand California crude-by-rail terminals have forced decision-makers across the state to re-evaluate the true impacts of transporting volatile, fracked oil by rail.

Our comments on Pittsburg, California's WesPac facility, which proposes to bring in up to 20 percent of the state's crude oil supply by rail and marine vessels, contributed to a decision by the Pittsburg City Council to recirculate the project's Environmental Impact Report for further analysis of the proposal's impacts and the risks of rail accidents to communities along rail routes. WesPac's proposed project site is located immediately adjacent to a residential community and Pittsburg's recently revived downtown.

Our technical comments achieved a similar result for a proposed rail terminal at a refinery in Santa Maria, California, that would bring five 80-car trains of volatile crude each week to the refinery. Trains heading to the refinery complex would travel through several major California towns and cities, including Sacramento, Davis, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Jose, before continuing south along the state's treasured central coastline. San Luis Obispo County supervisors sent the project's Environmental Impact Report back to the drawing board, noting that the overwhelming number of substantive public comments brought to light new information about the hazards associated with train emissions and the risk of train crashes.

The Sierra Club and its allies also recently filed suit challenging a Bay Area Air Quality Management District decision allowing Kinder Morgan to convert its existing ethanol storage facility in Richmond to a crude storage and transfer facility that would rail in volatile Bakken crude and load it on trucks to Bay Area refineries. The District failed to notify the public or conduct any environmental review before issuing the permit. The lawsuit asks the court to rescind the permit and require the District to evaluate the full impacts of transporting this fracked oil, and to halt all crude transport activities until the analysis is complete and the public has had a fair opportunity to comment on the proposal.

The Environmental Law Program continues to monitor these and other proposed crude-by-rail facilities throughout California and the Pacific Northwest, while working with towns along rail routes to oppose the transport of extreme crude by rail. We are also working at the federal level, urging lawmakers to strengthen federal rail safety regulations, including the retirement of outdated DOT-111 rail tank cars, and a process to ensure that state and local governments are fully informed of the hazardous, fracked crude being transported through their communities.

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