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they are the reality for hundreds of towns across North America, as the oil industry sends ever more fracked oil down outdated and overburdened rail lines.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.