It Could Happen Here: The Exploding Threat of Crude by Rail in California

Soda cans on wheels. That's what some call the dangerous rail tank cars that have suddenly become ubiquitous across the American landscape. In the rush to transport land-locked unconventional new crude oil sources, old rail lines running through communities across America are now rattling with thousands of cars filled with crude oil. Neither the cars nor the railroads were built for this purpose. Worse, federal regulators have few safeguards in place to protect communities and the environment from accidents, spills and explosions resulting from the race to move millions of barrels of crude by rail.

More crude oil was transported by rail in North America in 2013 than in the past five years combined, most of it extracted from the Bakken shale of North Dakota and Montana. In California, the increase in crude by rail has been particularly dramatic, from 45,000 barrels in 2009 to 6 million barrels in 2013. As "rolling pipelines" of more than 100 rail cars haul millions of gallons of crude oil through our communities, derailments, oil spills and explosions are becoming all too common. Between March 2013 and May 2014, there were 12 significant oil train derailments in the United States and Canada. As oil companies profit, communities bear the cost.

Californians Living Near Crude By Rail Routes

A new report from the State of California Interagency Rail Safety Working Group outlines serious vulnerabilities along California rail lines including close proximity to many population centers, numerous earthquake faults, a shortage of adequate emergency response capacity, many areas of vulnerable natural resources, and a number of "high hazard areas" for derailments, which are generally located along waterways and fragile natural resource areas. Millions of Californians live near crude by rail routes and could face extreme safety risks. Currently, there are five major new crude by rail terminals in the planning stages and two recently converted crude oil rail terminals that could collectively bring in up to seven or more mile long trains each day through metropolitan areas like Sacramento, putting up to 3.8 million people in harm's way.

Explosions and Spills Threaten Lives

"Each tank car of crude holds the energy equivalent of 2 million sticks of dynamite or the fuel in a widebody jetliner," write Russell Gold and Betsy Morris in the Wall Street Journal. In July 2013, an unattended oil train carrying 72 carloads of crude oil from North Dakota exploded in the center of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, near the U.S. border. The resulting inferno killed 47 people and destroyed much of the town center. Some 1.6 million gallons of crude oil was spilled. In the months following this devastating event, several more North American oil train derailments illustrated the sobering recurring public safety and environmental threats of catastrophic derailments due to the virtually unregulated surge in crude by rail. In 2013, rail cars spilled more crude oil than nearly the previous four decades combined (1.14 million gallons in 2013 compared to 800,000 gallons from 1975 to 2012).

Communities Lack Information And Control Over Hazardous Rail Shipments

Municipalities across the country are demanding increased communication about rail shipments of crude oil through their communities. However, crude oil -- and other hazardous materials shipped by rail -- have been exempted from the disclosure requirement of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). While the federal government finally directed rail companies to disclose this critical information to emergency responders, the general public remains in the dark about the nature of mile long tanker trains hurtling through their backyards at dangerous speed. Nobody has a choice about what gets transported through their community, how dangerous the cargo is, how frequently it goes through or whether it could be rerouted to more remote areas. Of the more than 3.8 million Californians who will be put at risk by proposed new crude by rail terminals, most are unlikely to even be aware of the significant new risks that they face.

Outdated and Dangerous Tank Cars Are Used to Carry Crude

Most of the rail tank cars used to carry flammable liquids, including crude oil are old "DOT-111s," which are widely known to be unsafe. Speaking at a farewell address at the National Press Club in April 2014, outgoing National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairwoman Deborah Hersman repeated a long-held NTSB position that unmodified DOT-111 tank cars -- non-pressurized rail tank cars that accident investigators report are easily punctured or ruptured during a derailment -- are not safe to carry hazardous liquids. "Carrying corn oil is fine, carrying crude oil is not," she said.

Thus, in 2009, the NTSB recommended these tank cars be equipped with additional safety features. Since October 2011, new rail tank cars built for transporting crude oil have incorporated these features, such as the use of head shields, thicker tank material, and pressure-relief devices. Yet regulators have not eliminated the use of the older, unmodified DOT-111 cars for carrying oil -- out of 39,000 DOT-111 tank cars now used to carry crude, two-thirds still do not meet these modern safety standards. The Department of Transportation, simply recommended that shippers stop using these cars to transport oil, but they do not require it.

Commonsense Safeguards for Crude-by-Rail Are Overdue

In the longer term, our health depends on cleaner, renewable energy and moving away from fossil fuels. In the immediate term, we must tighten safety regulations on the rail transport of crude oil, or run the risk of devastating consequences. NRDC calls on lawmakers to expedite rules mandating commonsense practices.

Crude oil train accidents are preventable. All Californians should be calling for the crude oil and rail safety standards listed here.