Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton vividly remembers the moment he first laid eyes on the blaze from 16 derailed train cars running right through the middle of his small Oregon town early last month.
His first thought was “surreal,” and his second thought was the disaster at Lac-Mégantic, Que. in July 2013, which killed nearly 50 people.
Less than a kilometre east, the fire could have burned beneath Mosier’s modular homes, and in another 1.5 kilometres, it could have sent leaking oil tank cars to the bank of the Columbia River during the peak of the spring chinook salmon migration.
About 100 people were evacuated as the accident came within 230 metres of the Mosier Community School, and spilled tens of thousands of litres of crude into the ground and city sewer system.
It burned out of control for at least 18 hours.
“The terror that people felt was watching the upwind side of this line of cars burning,” Appleton recalled. “Just by sitting in their houses, without doing anything, they were being traumatized."
It’s a miracle no one was hurt, say experts, who today chalk the derailment's quick containment up to “luck.” But the Mosier incident and others like it have left many communities alarmed that North American regulators still haven't done enough to protect the public, three years after the Lac-Mégantic disaster. The people of Mosier are "canaries in the coal mine," Appleton explained, as thousands of trains carrying flammable oil rattle dangerously through American communities each and every day. The critics say it means that nearly 25 million Americans are in a bomb train zone with an oil-by-rail disaster in the making.
“Unit trains of oil are an unacceptable risk," Appleton said firmly. "That volume of hazard in one place is just insane."
Oil train traffic "flirting with disaster"
Shortly after the incident, Oregon became the first state to call on federal regulators for a ban on oil trains within its state limits. An investigation into the derailment found that inspections and tests performed prior to the accident — measures in place to prevent such disaster — failed to detect the system failure that caused the railway to break apart.
It's proof that no matter how much risk is reduced, no method of transportation can ever be made “100 per cent safe," according to the nearby City of Portland. Its council recently passed resolutions opposing the increase of crude oil-carrying trains in and around the city, and the expansion of any infrastructure whose primary purpose is transporting or storing fossil fuels in or or through Portland.
“We are flirting with disaster if we allow this to continue,” said Zach Klonoski, an environment and sustainability policy advisor to Portland Mayor Charlie Hales.
“You don’t have a solar spill when there’s an accident with solar power, and we’ve shown here in Portland that transitioning into clean renewable energy is the way to go. We believe that being in the business of continuing to invest in a fossil fuel economy is a loser long-term."
In short, as the three-year anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic disaster approaches on July 6 — all while oil by rail reaches record volumes in the U.S. — many American activists and communities are calling on elected officials to endorse a ban on oil trains across the country.
Learning from Lac-Mégantic
The lessons began north of the border, on a night no one in the eastern Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic would ever forget. It was a warm, breezy evening at the Musi-Cafe, a popular local watering hole for friends, family, and couples.
But around 1 a.m. as patron Raymond Lafontaine tells it, the ground started shaking, the power went out, and the sky turned a violent shade of orange.
"It was my daughter’s birthday. They went to celebrate at Musi-Cafe," Lafontaine told the French-language newspaper, La Presse at the time of the devastating derailment. "That’s where the death train came down. A train filled with oil painted in black. It’s the death train.”
As the locomotive sped towards them, Lafontaine ran out of the bar. He was separated from his family in all the commotion.
"The reflex of my wife was to hide. Mine was to get out and it was the best decision of my life," he said.
Lafontaine and his wife survived, but he lost his son Gaétan, two daughters in law and an employee that night, in a historic derailment that killed 47 people, left 27 children orphaned, and poisoned the land and water with six million litres of spilled crude oil. More than 30 buildings were destroyed and despite the combined effort of 1,000 firefighters, the fire burned for two days.
It was a clarion call for international action to improve rail safety.
Modest, but arguably deficient safety measures have been put in place in Canada since then, but as the recently-failed inspections at the Mosier, Ore. derailment proved on June 3, no mode of transportation can ever be made "100 per cent safe." Oil trains are an issue primarily in Canada and the U.S., where developers are extracting oil in areas not served by pipelines.
It's a pressing issue particularly in U.S., where according to Stand, an environmental advocacy group, around 25 million Americans live in the blast zone of an accident with Lac-Mégantic-potential — a radius that includes nearly 750 schools in Washington and Oregon
“The grim reality is that we’re one tragic accident away from it being a major political issue,” said Stand campaigns director Ross Hammond. “What’s so frustrating for us is trying to get the attention of politicians in the absence of a catastrophic accident.”
Not gaining enough national traction
Since 2008, oil train traffic in the U.S. has increased by more than 5,000 per cent — from 9,500 carloads of crude in 2008 to nearly half a million in 2014. Since 2013, at least 21 oil train derailments and accidents have spilled an estimated 7.1 million litres on American soil.
It’s a massive domestic security threat, said Hammond, yet for some reason, very few people beyond the Pacific Northwest are talking about it — at least on the level of national politics.
In Seattle last Friday, President Barack Obama gave a cryptic response to oil train protesters who interrupted his speech with demands for a ban: "I gotcha, I heard ya. You made your point, but can I go on now?" he said, before adding, "I've still got six months. Give me a little time. We're going to use those six months."
Presumptive presidential Democratic and Republican candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have also kept relatively quiet on the issue so far. Clinton’s platform promises to make oil train companies more accountable for their actions and to phase out old cars and repair track defects. But it doesn't address the future of the dangerous risky method. On the other hand, Trump’s campaign appears to have said nothing about the topic at all.
Neither campaign returned calls for comment on this story, nor did their leaders issue a statement on the massive oil train derailment in Mosier, Ore. on June 3 (not even a tweet to thank first responders). It could have been an “unimaginable tragedy,” said Hammond, who called out presidents and presidential hopeful for failing to address a “major, major public safety hazard.”
Backlash for bravery?
But it’s not surprising that leaders have been cautious, according to Ben Stuckart, city council president for Spokane, Wash., which has called for tighter state and federal regulations on oil by rail.
Oil trains are a ‘third rail’ political issue (an unfortunate pun) feared across the party lines, he explained, and to come out guns blazing against them is to appear anti-oil, anti-labour, anti-free trade, and anti-agriculture (an industry that relies on the same rail system). Yet to ignore them, he said, is to ignore the “bomb train” cries of communities within the blast zone.
“Some of the candidates’ topics have alienated a lot of people already so I don’t think they’re worried about it… I personally would call it cowardly.”
The City of Spokane is a funnel for North Dakota’s particularly flammable Bakken crude oil, and has joined dozens of Pacific Northwest communities demanding a range of action from further study on hazardous materials to a moratorium on oil trains. Oil terminal proposals (like the Tesoro Savage energy terminal in Vancouver, Wash.) threaten to increase train traffic in these communities, and according to a survey of major American cities in their path, many are already preparing for the worst with extra training for firefighters and hazmat teams.
Rather than address their concerns however, Carolyn Kissane, academic director, clinical associate professor, and director of Environment and Energy Concentration at the New York University Center for Global Affairs, postulated that national political leaders fear the same kind of public backlash that came from speaking for or against the Keystone XL pipeline.
“I think it’s the fact that if it’s not by rail, how is that oil going to moved?” she told National Observer. “The last thing I think a politician, especially one on the national stage, wants to say… is that we’re going to lock in production and basically eliminate transit routes.”
But just as the public has demanded information on the dangers of the contents in their food, it is now demanding more transparency and accountability from leaders about the dangers of transporting oil by rail. Given these concerns, she said, the topic should be addressed by candidates before the election in November.
Kari Cutting however, vice-president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, believes it’s only a matter of time before they do. She said Trump and Clinton are most likely waiting for the results of a joint U.S. Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration study on the flammability of domestic crude oil before issuing any firm statements.
“I think politicians are aware that major federal agencies don’t have the answer and are conducting studies to better look at it,” she explained. “I think it certainly would be a smart thing to say, ‘I'm not the expert in the field.’”
And despite bomb train rhetoric coming from its opponents, oil by rail can be done safely, she said.
Oil trains can be made safe
Since 2012, the DOT has initiated nearly 30 actions aimed at strengthening safe transportation of flammable liquids by rail. Its final rule was announced in May last year, in conjunction with the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, and Canada’s federal Transport Department.
For trains containing a continuous block of 20 or more tank cars loaded with a flammable liquid, it included enhanced standards for new and existing tank cars, better braking to mitigate damage in derailments, reduced operating speeds, and more robust risk assessment procedures among other measures.
“There is always a safe way that hazardous materials can be transported,” explained Cutting, whose own state of North Dakota requires extracted crude be run through machines that remove the volatile gases linked to oil train disasters.
“I don’t think there should be a ban on oil trains. The federal agencies... have come up with regulations over the decades to move all kinds of things that are more hazardous than crude oil safely, and all hazardous materials move safely to their destination 99.997 per cent of the time.”
Despite at least 20 oil train derailments in the U.S. over the last three years, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the overall train accident rate has fallen 45 per cent since 2000 and 80 percent since 1980. The decrease corresponds with AAR’s investments in maintenance and upgrades to the country’s privately-owned freight rail network and equipment.
“For our industry, there is no greater priority than the safety of our network,” said AAR director of media relations Ed Greenberg. “We do recognize the concern that has been expressed over some high profile incidents that have overshadowed the fact that thousands of trains safely move across the U.S. every day without any problems."
Less than one per cent of all derailments involve crude oil, he added, but the AAR will work continuously to improve safety to achieve “zero incidents.”
And while those on the front lines appreciate such efforts, many feel as though “zero incidents” is impossible. As long as highly-flammable oil is rattling along through communities in puncturable cars, lives, water and land are at stake.
But choosing "the lesser of two evils" between oil trains and pipelines is also a false dichotomy according to Hammond of Stand, who said industry and politicians would like constituents to believe there is no alternative between the two, particularly not renewable energy.
"The sad reality right now is that people don’t pay attention to it until something bad happens," he reiterated. "We need to just stop moving oil by rail. There’s no safe way to do it because of where the rail lines go — and this isn’t anyone’s fault — through major populated areas, and major waterways which are sources of drinking water and irrigation."