NRDC Demands Trump Administration Regulate "Bomb Trains"

NRDC, along with over 40 environmental and community groups, is pushing the Trump Administration to protect the 25 million Americans living near train tracks by regulating crude-by-rail trains. Currently, there is no limit to the explosiveness or flammability of crude oil shipped by rail—a dangerous situation given that, on average, at least one train slips off the tracks in this country every single day, and most crude oil shipped by rail is Bakken crude, the most volatile crude oil in the country.

In a letter submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (“PHMSA”) we demand that PHMSA, at the very least, act to regulate this dangerous practice.

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, leading a coalition of six state Attorneys General, also filed extensive comments urging the Trump Administration to immediately close the loophole that allows highly flammable, highly explosive crude oil to be shipped by rail through communities in New York and across the country. A petition filed by Attorney General Schneiderman was the initial prompt that moved PHMSA to consider regulating this dangerous practice.  

"And the heavens sang 'Ode to Joyful Oil'"

Kurt Haubrich/Flickr

Since 2007, the fracking boom has unlocked vast amounts of previously unavailable crude oil across the country—from 2008 to 2016, U.S. production of crude oil has nearly doubled. Because the United States doesn’t have the infrastructure or capacity to ship the huge amounts of crude oil being produced, companies enlist railroads to ship crude oil. From 2008 to 2014, the amount of crude oil shipped by rail increased by more than 5,000 percent.

As the use of rail to transport crude oil has skyrocketed, the frequency of dangerous oil train accidents has also increased significantly. Most recently, in June 2016, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed on a strip of land running between the Columbia River and the town of Mosier, Oregon. Four cars carrying crude oil breached, spilling 42,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil. The volatile oil burst in flames, igniting a rail fire that persisted for over 10 hours. Nearly 300 residents were evacuated from their homes due to safety concerns. The fire chief of Mosier, who once was in favor of the shipment of crude oil by rail said that after the accident, he no longer believes that shipping oil by rail is safe. These explosive rail accidents destroy homes, endanger public health, and pollute the environment. Despite the upturn in crude by rail accidents, crude oil volatility, or the likelihood the oil will explode or burst into flames, remains completely unregulated. 

YouTube. (2013, December 31). Oil Train Inferno: Video of massive explosion as US train derails in North Dakota (video file).

We make three points to support our request to regulate the volatility of crude by rail:

First, given the recent fracking boom and increase in both the amount of crude oil shipped by rail and frequency of accidents related to this harmful practice, the time is ripe for PHMSA to step in to regulate this previously irregular industry practice of shipping crude by rail.  

Second, both existing federal and state regulations and unregulated industry practice are insufficient on their own to address the issue. Despite the increase in dangerous crude by rail accidents, there is no federal or state regulation in place that limits the volatility of crude oil during transport. And while North Dakota has taken measures to regulate the vapor pressure of crude oil transported by rail, the vapor pressure limit is so lax as to be virtually meaningless. 

Third, setting a vapor pressure standard for crude oil is technologically feasible and would result in a notable reduction in crude oil volatility, which would in turn improve the safety of crude by rail accidents. Vapor pressures can easily be reduced with existing technologies that have been used for years in other parts of the country.

The time is ripe for the Trump Administration to limit this dangerous, unregulated practice—with increased crude by rail accidents leading to explosions, fireballs, and harm to both people and our environment, we can’t afford to continue to business as usual. We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman and his colleagues for pushing for immediate action on this critical matter of public safety.

Read more about NRDC’s fight against crude-by-rail

About the Authors

Kimberly Ong

Staff Attorney

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