Demanding safer rails: Crude oil transportation by rail in Williamstown poses as a looming threat for residents

February 10, 2016 by Benjamin Gips

President Barack Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline earned great applause from environmental groups. However, this triumph raises an important question much closer to home: What are the alternatives to the pipeline?

One method that is currently being used right here in Williamstown is crude oil transportation by rail. High-profile accidents have shown us that this method of transportation puts communities like ours at risk. The July 2014 disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, was caused by a train carrying crude oil that derailed in the center of town. The sudden inferno that occurred there killed 47 people.

Currently, over one million barrels of crude oil move by rail every day across the United States. Lac-Mégantic was the first deadly oil train disaster, but there have been numerous close-call derailments in many communities. Residents of Mount Carbon, W. Va., witnessed a massive explosion and fires that burned for 24 hours after a crude-laden train flew off the rails nearby in February 2015. A similar explosion rocked the fields surrounding Casselton, N.D., in December 2013. In Lynchburg, Va., an April 2014 derailment led to a spillage of crude oil by the shores of the James River, causing the portions of the river to burn.

The exact same types of trains run through Williamstown every day, carrying their dangerous payloads of volatile Bakken shale crude. While watching a sporting event at Cole Field, one can clearly see the tanker cars rushing by. Their whistles are audible throughout town. Many of the trains include the especially dangerous DOT-111 railcars, which made up a large portion of the cars that ruptured during the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

As the residents of a town that is threatened by the rail transportation of crude oil, we need to demand bolder steps from our government. There has been some legislative reaction to the dangers posed by transporting crude oil by rail, but not enough. At the federal level, new regulations now require testing procedures for crude oil before it can be shipped by rail. A ban was also placed on a variety of railcar that made up three percent of the U.S. oil transport fleet, yet the ban had no effect on the DOT-111 car. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a two-day panel to address the potential safety shortfalls of the DOT-111, along with related questions of rail safety. However, the debates did not lead to any direct legislation.

The need for change is clear. However, an outright ban on the transportation of crude oil by rail would simply lead the oil industry to deploy alternative methods of transportation, at least in the short term. Pipelines, trucks and barges are the realistic alternatives, and they each pose environmental and other dangers.

Without safe options for transporting this dangerous material, the only way to prevent disasters in the future is to reduce oil dependence unilaterally. However, since that will take time, we need intermediate steps to improve safety in communities like ours that are located near railways.

A reasonable and effective starting point for regulation is to ban the DOT-111 tanker cars. The amount of crude oil being produced in areas without pipeline infrastructure, such as North Dakota and Canada, led to a sudden increase in demand for cars that could carry the volatile substance. As a result, the DOT-111 currently makes up over half of the U.S. fleet of oil tankers. Some rail companies have voluntarily agreed to stop using this model of car for crude oil in the next few years, but their timeframes and commitments vary.

The NTSB needs to adopt an immediate ban on the carrying of crude oil in DOT-111 cars, as well as a higher standard for railroad track safety in general. Crude oil should be subject to the same restrictions as flammable materials such as gasoline, which can only be carried in pressurized railcars that are much more structurally sound. Forcing this change onto oil companies would certainly impose an added cost to them, but these companies are the ones responsible for making their industry safer.

We also need stricter measures to require oil companies to openly publish information about their shipping routes and the makeup of their oil. Our community deserves reliable information about what is coming down our tracks.

Though the safety of our community is reason enough to make this change in policy, there are other similarly pressing consequences of continuing to transport such a volatile substance in a precarious manner. The environmental costs of oil spills are huge. The effects of global warming are continuing to manifest themselves, while the present low gas prices take away incentives to reduce fossil fuel consumption. The railroad can become our battleground against the expansion of fossil fuels. By demanding regulation of this industry, we are not only protecting ourselves from accidents and explosions but also from the even more deadly effects of climate change in years to come.

Until the government can create some meaningful legislation of oil trains, it is our responsibility to organize as a community and demand safer methods of transportation. We can either remain silent and continue allowing the fossil fuel companies to quite literally roll over our community, or we can mobilize and demand a better alternative. Organizing alongside our local government, the College community can and should demand safer rails.

Benjamin Gips ’19 is from Washington, D.C. He lives in Williams Hall. 

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