The knee-jerk reaction in Minnesota and elsewhere to the spate of North American crude oil disasters — beefing up emergency capabilities — is predictable, but dead wrong. The glum, vivid consensus from fire chiefs and emergency managers, at the April 2014 high-level expert National Transportation Safety Forum on Ethanol and Crude Oil Transportation, is that derailments of 100-tanker oil trains are "way beyond our current capabilities." Following long-standing, prudent U.S. Transportation Department "Orange Book" guidance, fire chiefs testified that "even if we had an infinite amount of foam" they can only do defensive firefighting, pulling back at least one-half mile and letting the explosions and fires happen.
Minnesota, as a crude-by-rail corridor facing huge risks and no benefits, should be loudly demanding to see the railroads' hidden documents, forcing the railroads to prove that they have selected the "safest and most secure" routes for all their highest risk hazmat cargoes, as a 2007 federal law requires. In the recent, sobering documents from the ongoing federal rule-making on high-hazard flammable trains, the Transportation Department concedes that routing trains to avoid urban areas could improve safety and security, but says it has seen only "modest" railroad hazmat rerouting.
The DOT documents say it is "impossible to know" whether the railroads have prioritized safety in their routing decisions. Each railroad makes secret decisions based on 27 routing factors, which each can weight as they will, with no federal guidance. No federal oversight body has reported on whether such decisions are protecting a single U.S. city, major water reservoir or Native American land.
Railroads, under sustained local public pressure, have told citizens in only two U.S. cities that they have "voluntarily" rerouted unit trains of crude oil onto unspecified safer routes. Angry citizen uproars in Washington, D.C., prompted CSX to say this publicly in 2013, and St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson recently pressured railroad officials to reroute crude oil trains around his city.
Pushback on tank cars
The current vigorous pushback from the oil and railroad industry on federal regulatory proposals for improving crude oil safety virtually guarantees that we will not get significantly stronger tank car design in future, nor fast retrofit of the existing, inadequate DOT-111 tank cars. We will also not get significantly slower train speeds: the railroads say rail network speed cannot be lowered.
Congress enacted two major disaster prevention measures in 1986 and 1990 — Community Right-to-Know laws to provide information to the public on high-risk industries. Even though 13,000 U.S. chemical facilities have been complying with these laws, and providing their required "worst-case scenario" calculations for potential disasters, the railroads got themselves exempted from both laws.
Some of the other railroad documents that Minnesotans should be demanding are the worst-case scenarios for crude oil unit train derailments, catastrophic insurance coverage documents and comprehensive emergency response plans.
Crude-by-rail is a born-yesterday, ultrahazardous, transcontinental enterprise that does not need to exist at all. Americans learned 30 years ago of the disaster risks of a similar ultrahazardous industry, the government plan for massive rail and truck transportation through American cities of high-level nuclear irradiated fuel from nuclear power plants for deep geologic "disposal." Assessed storage sites included Minnesota's excellent granite and Louisiana's salt domes, but after massive citizen protests at all sites, politicians chose politically weak Nevada's Yucca Mountain site.
When the U.S. public learned of the worst-case release potentials of highly irradiated nuclear waste casks, and of the 40-year plans for rail and truck routing through St. Louis-Kansas City-Denver-Salt Lake and other U.S. cities, they soon assessed all this as an "unacceptable risk" and mounted vigorous counter pressure. Public officials finally mandated that the fuel be stored by power plants in on-site, heavily shielded dry cask storage.
The bottom line: The planned massive transcontinental radioactive waste transportation industry was not allowed to exist.
In recent regulatory documents, DOT estimates that we could have many more serious crude-by-rail disasters in major cities that are five times the density of tiny Lac-Mégantic, where 47 died in July 2013. Even DOT's package of proposed safety improvements would not prevent all of these.
Citizens need their leaders to make the life-or-death decision on the continuance of this insidious metastasizing of oil patch disaster risks into America's cities and neighborhoods.