"Bomb trains" continue to roll through heavily populated areas
The trains carrying crude oil from the Alberta tar sands or fracked Bakken shale crude from North Dakota are known as “bomb trains” because of the flammable, volatile cargo they transport. In 2015, five separate oil trains left the tracks, resulting in explosions - including two in Ontario.
Yet oil trains travel unchecked through highly populated areas in Canada and the U.S.. In late August, retired aerospace worker Roger Annis contacted the National Observer after he witnessed an oil train moving through Crescent Beach in Surrey, British Columbia.
“To me, it was just a huge slap in the face after all we’ve been through and after all the concerns that have been raised in White Rock and South Surrey,” said Annis, who has also written extensively on oil trains.
A disaster waiting to happen
The trains continue to raise the ire of activists and politicians alike. Wayne Baldwin, the Mayor of White Rock, told the National Observer that the oil trains rolling through the area are “a kind of disaster waiting to happen, that something inevitable is going to happen.”
The White Rock region holds about 100,000 people. Where the rail line passes through Crescent Beach, houses are literally within touching distance of the track. If a train derailed in Crescent Beach, it’s possible the entire community would be cut off and unable to be evacuated because of the area’s configuration.
In White Rock, the trains traverse a slope on which seven trains in the past have derailed. Baldwin said climate change is contributing to the instability of the slope with saturating rains that could potentially trigger a disastrous slide.
Not only is the railway lined with residential homes on one side, but on the other is ocean front that has been touted as some of the most highly protected in the province, according to Baldwin.
“We’ve got all this crap going through right next to an extremely environmentally sensitive area and if there’s an accident, of course that’s going to suffer as well,” Baldwin noted.
Forty trains weekly with shipments of Bakken crude roll through Chicago
These kinds of arguments are being played out all over North America as an average of one million barrels of oil daily are shipped in rail tanker cars.
In fact, the greatest amount of rail oil shipments is to the U.S. East Coast, according to Oil Change International’s July 2015 Crude-by-Rail Data Focus. In 2014, an average of 450,000 barrels of oil was delivered by rail to the east coast, of which 80 per cent of the crude was the highly flammable Bakken shale oil – the same crude the Lac Megantic train carried.
If a derailment in White Rock or Surrey could be catastrophic, then an accident in the east coast hub of oil trains, Chicago, could be cataclysmic.
NPR reported in June 2015 that 40 or more trains carrying Bakken crude roll roll through Chicago weekly, just on the BNSF Railway’s tracks alone – the same rail carrier who transports Bakken crude through the White Rock-Surrey corridor.
The public broadcaster said the trails rolled past apartment buildings, homes, business and schools.
Gus Melonas, a spokesman with the BNSF Railway, said that within Canada the company had the safest year on record for train accidents in 2014, moving hazardous materials to their destination “99.99 per cent without incident.”
As a “common carrier,” BNSF is required to move all types of commodities, Melonas said, adding that the firm takes the necessary precautions to ensure railroad, community and environmental protection when moving hazardous goods.
Bomb trains should be routed away from urban centres
Post-Lac Megantic, Transport Canada issued a number of changes to the regulations governing the movement of hazardous materials via train.
But as the U.S. moved to amend its regulations as well, Canada harmonized what had been very aggressive changes with the states. Those subsequently became watered down, asserts Matt Krogh, the extreme oil campaign director for the U.S.-based advocacy group, ForestEthics.
ForestEthics, along with Sierra Club, Earthjustice and a number of others, are suing the U.S. Department of Transportation over the amendments to the rail regulations.
Much of the lawsuit focuses on the fact that the regulations leave the sub-standard tanker cars – which have been likened to Pintos on rails - in service and available for use to move flammable products, Krogh said.
The railway companies now have 10 years to replace the weaker tank cars; and all the cars still have the option to be used for the transport of flammable fluids as long as the train has 35 or fewer tank cars of oil or 20 in a row or less, Krogh said.
Krogh insists that Transport Canada and the U.S. Department of Transportation could lean on the railway companies to route the tanker cars around urban centres and force them to reduce their speeds.
“You look at what’s happening and we have our governments that are largely captured by the oil and rail industries, who are doing what they will at our expenses.”
Krogh said North America is awash in crude oil at a time when demand is decreasing. “We have too much.
“Conversations on pipelines versus crude are actually predicated on the idea that we need more oil coming through and that idea is false.”