The Bomb Trains

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As promised, Joe Biden has issued an executive order revoking the March 2019 permit for construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. That project, for the time being anyway, is dead. Joe has fulfilled his pledge to those who think we can run our economy without fossil fuels. Workers are already being fired, and energy costs will inevitably begin to rise.

Let’s look at another less discussed implication of this disastrous decision, however. Let’s look at how many people Joe just condemned to death.

The AOC’s of the world assume that cancelling the permit to allow the construction of the pipeline means that the oil it would carry will no longer be produced and no longer reach market. That is not at all what it means. The oil will still find its way to refineries, but now instead of being pumped safely and securely in a pipeline, it will be carried by other means.

That means mostly by train, and trains derail. When they derail, especially if they are carrying the particularly volatile Bakken Crude Oil, the consequences can be deadly.

On July 6, 2013 a 73-car freight train carrying Bakken Crude derailed in the remote Canadian town of Lac-Megantic. Multiple tank cars caught fire and exploded in the center of the small community. Forty-two people were killed. More than thirty buildings were destroyed. All but three of the thirty-nine surviving buildings had to be demolished. The blast radius from the explosions was one kilometer.

If there is an upside to that terrible story, it is that the derailment happened in a small town with a limited population. The trains that carry Bakken Crude don’t just run through rural areas, however. They go through the heart of our biggest cities. And, many of them are much, much bigger than the 73-car train that blew up in Lac-Megantic.

Changes in the way oil is now shipped have contributed to the danger. Crude oil used to be carried on the rails “by manifest,” that is, on trains with a variety of other cargoes. Today trains typically carry only one cargo, the highly volatile Bakken Crude, which reacts much more like gasoline than crude oil in a derailment. These trains usually have in excess of 80 cars. When a 109-car Bakken Crude train jumped the rails in Mount Carbon, West Virginia, in 2015 the entire town had to be evacuated.

Twenty-five million Americans live within a mile of a train track on which Bakken Crude bomb trains travel. Virtually every major city in the nation, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, has such trains running on tracks right through the heart of heavily populated areas. In 2015 a three-locomotive, 111-car CSX freight train came off the tracks while traveling through Philadelphia. Fortunately, the cars stayed upright, and no crude oil was lost. There was, through sheer luck, no explosion. There could just as easily have been a massive explosion in the heart of one of our great cities.

The reality of the danger posed by the transport of Bakken Crude by train is terrifying. If the oil catches fire and explodes what results is devastation. The fire is uncontrollable. All firefighters can do is evacuate the area and wait for the fire to burn itself out.

As Fairfield, Iowa, Fire Chief Scott Vaughan described in 2014, “If there was a spill or a fire, our big thing would be containment and evacuation,” he said. “We train for it, but training and actually doing are two different things. Very simply, there is no controlling an oil train fire.”

Just as scary is the ease with which such an eventuality can occur. If an oil train derails at any speed over ten miles an hour a dozen or more cars typically come off the tracks, decouple, and are thrown from their wheels. If tank cars are punctured, the explosive Bakken Crude will generally either self-ignite or be ignited by some other source. You don’t have to imagine a train racing out of control to have this happen. This could happen anytime, anywhere.

In December 2013, a westbound train carrying grain derailed in Casselton, North Dakota. One car fell on the eastbound tracks. Two minutes later a crude oil train traveling on the eastbound tracks struck that car. Eighteen tank cars were ruptured releasing 450,000 gallons of Bakken Crude.
First responders to the scene set up a command post a quarter mile from the crash. Almost immediately they had to move further away due to the intense heat. The Department of Transportation’s Emergency Guidebook says emergency responders to a tank car disaster should evacuate everyone within a half mile in all directions. That is for a single-car wreck.

No attention is paid to directions for fighting the fire. In fact, federal guidelines say quite clearly, “In the event of an incident that may involve the release of thousands of gallons of product and ignition of tank cars of crude oil in a unit train, most emergency response organizations will not have the available resources, capabilities or trained personnel to safely and effectively extinguish a fire or contain a spill of this magnitude.”

A report on oil train safety by the Interagency Board, which coordinates local, state, and federal agencies on emergency response, described the situation on the ground during the 2015 Mount Carbon, West Virginia oil train accident:

“During the derailment sequence, two tank cars were initially punctured releasing more than 50,000 gallons of crude oil. Of the 27 tank cars that derailed, 19 cars became involved in the pileup and post-accident pool fire. The pool fire caused thermal tank shell failures on 13 tank cars that otherwise survived the initial accident.”

“Emergency responders at the Mount Carbon, WV incident reported the first thermal failure about 25 minutes after the accident. Within the initial 65 minutes of the incident, at least four tank car failures with large fireball eruptions occurred. The 13th and last thermal failure occurred more than 10 hours after the accident.”

Interagency Board Report


All the precautions in the world will not prevent the inevitable. Sooner or later one of these massive trains carrying highly volatile Bakken Crude is going to come off the rails while transiting a major urban area. There is going to be a massive fire, continued explosions as tank cars cook off, and we are going to be reduced to watching block after block of one of our cities burn to the ground.

Joe has fulfilled his promise. The proponents of the Green New Deal are high-fiving and celebrating. Meanwhile, out there in the real world, the bomb trains are on the move, and the clock is ticking.

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