Oil Transport Trains put the City of Utica at Risk

by Kevin Nugent/Love and Rage

On a warm July night in 2013, a locomotive carrying Bakken formation crude oil sat idle on a slight grade in Farnham, Quebec, after having arrived from its point of origin of New Town, North Dakota. A fire broke out on the unmanned train, causing its brakes to fail. Now loose, the train began to roll downhill and quickly picked up momentum, reaching speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour. After traveling for seven miles completely unchecked, the runaway train entered the downtown area of Lac-Megantic, Quebec around 1am.

The train ripped through the populated downtown neighborhood in total darkness, having lacked the operator necessary to activate its lights. Witnesses saw sparks flying from the wheels as the train careened out of control. The oil transport train derailed and exploded, creating a fireball two to three times the height of the tallest nearby buildings. The fires could be felt by people over one mile away, and would ultimately consume 47 lives and 30 buildings.

The Lac-Megantic derailment is often the poster child for the dangers imposed on local communities by crude oil transport trains. The oil tanker cars in use during in the Quebec explosion, known as the DOT-111, have been involved in many other violent oil train derailments in recent years. More importantly for Uticans, the DOT-111 is also used to transport volatile crude oil through downtown Utica on a daily basis.

The DOT-111 is prone to catastrophic failure and explosion during rail accidents, and is earning an increasingly poor safety record as a result. Originally designed to carry nonhazardous liquids like corn syrup, the DOT-111 is horribly ill-equipped to carry volatile substances like crude oil. Additionally, the design has largely gone unchanged since its conception in the early 1960s, meaning we are putting the health and safety of our community at the mercy of a fifty year old design.

The danger posed by oil trains is best illustrated by the Lac-Megantic derailment, but there have been many, many others. Just last week, a train carrying ethanol derailed and caught fire in South Dakota. Two catastrophic failures of oil transport tankers occurred in February of this year alone; one in West Virginia which required more than 100 residents to evacuate their community, and another in Ontario, Canada just two days earlier. Over the last few years, serious oil train accidents have occurred in Alabama, Illinois, North Dakota, New Brunswick, and New York, among others. Is Utica next? The local rail industry has a less than spotless reputation for safety, considering the freight train collision at the Utica Boehlert Transportation Center just two months ago.

Following the fatal oil train derailment in Quebec, the National Highway Traffic Safety Board released a report examining the safety of the DOT-111. Investigators found that the tanker car poses an “unacceptable public risk.” The unsafe nature of the DOT-111 is compounded by the fact that they are becoming an extremely popular method of transporting crude after years of having been written off as an antiquated oil transport mechanism. According to rail transport consultant Anthony Hatch, “Rail has gone from near-obsolescence to being critical to oil supplies. It’s as if the buggy-whips were back in style.” As public opposition to oil pipelines like the Keystone XL continues to mount, increased strain will be placed on the already vulnerable fleet of oil-transporting DOT-111s.

According to the non-profit organization Environmental Advocates of New York, our state has quickly become one of the largest transportation hubs for crude oil in the country. Billions of gallons of volatile crude oil travel through upstate cities like Utica and Albany on a daily basis. The Albany based advocacy group People of Albany United for Safe Energy, or “PAUSE,” has been a strong voice for safer industry practices and increased utilization of clean energy sources ever since an oil train derailment in Albany last year; a derailment that initially went unreported and ultimately prompted the highest fine allowable under state law. Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy has also spoken out on the issue, calling for stricter rail regulations in order to protect Albany families and ecosystems.

Simply put, these dangerous oil transport trains put Utica at risk. We should work to make the trains safer, to tighten regulations on industry practices, and to reroute the trains away from populated urban centers. Additional societal benefits would also be received from increased efforts to move to greener, cleaner, and more sustainable sources of energy. Just as oil transport trains pose a threat to the health and safety of the people living near the tracks (typically low and middle income families), the fossil fuels they transport pose a danger to our planet and our climate.

Kevin Nugent is an Oriskany, NY native who is currently teaching English with his wife in South Korea. Kevin previously sat on the Board of Directors for Central New York Citizens in Action, Inc. and taught as an adjunct lecturer of Government and Politics at Utica College.

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