Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Railroad Oil Spills

The amount of oil being transported by rail has soared. The Association of American Railroads (AAR), an industry group, reported that in 2013 the number of carloads of petroleum and petroleum products jumped 31 percent over the previous year.  AAR estimates that railroads shipped 400,000 carloads of crude oil last year. That’s more than 11.5 billion gallons, with one tank car holding roughly 28,800 gallons.

More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents last year than was spilled in the nearly four decades since the federal government began collecting data on such spills, an analysis of the data shows.  Including major derailments in Alabama and North Dakota, more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars in 2013, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

By comparison, from 1975 to 2012, U.S. railroads spilled a combined 800,000 gallons of crude oil. The spike underscores new concerns about the safety of such shipments as rail has become the preferred mode for oil producers amid a North American energy boom.

The federal data do not include incidents in Canada in which oil spilled from trains. Canadian authorities estimate that more than 1.5 million gallons of crude oil spilled in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, on July 6, when a runaway train derailed and exploded, killing 47 people. The cargo originated in North Dakota.

Last year’s total spills of 1.15 million gallons means that 99.99 percent of shipments arrived without incident, close to the safety record the industry and its regulators claim about hazardous materials shipments by rail.

Until a few years ago, railroads weren’t carrying crude oil in 80- to 100-car trains. In eight of the years between 1975 and 2009, railroads reported no spills of crude oil. In five of those years, they reported spills of one gallon or less.

There have been a number of railroad accidents involving oil shipments in the past few weeks, including the Monday derailment of seven cars from a CSX train that was crossing a rail bridge to the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, partly owned by the Carlyle Group. No oil was spilled, but the incident frightened local residents and officials.  The accident closed down the Schuylkill Expressway. CSX said that it has removed one oil-tank car and that it needed to transfer oil from five others. An additional car was carrying sand, a safety measure to put some distance between hazardous cargo and the locomotive.

Critics say the oil trains are putting lives at risk in an urban area that includes a hospital and university buildings. Other accidents have happened in recent months involving railroad shipments of oil. In July, an accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people. On Dec. 30, an oil train spilled 400,000 gallons and caught fire after hitting a derailed train near Casselton, N.D. And on Jan. 7, a derailment in the Canadian province of New Brunswick near Maine triggered a fire and forced the evacuation of about 150 residents. (Wash Post, 1/21/2014, Wash Post, 1/21/2014))

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