The U.S. Department of Transportation has predicted that oil- and ethanol-laden freight trains transporting the flammable substances across long distances for deliver could derail an average of 10 times annually, the Associated Press reported.
Such accidents, especially any that were to occur in a heavily populated or urban area, could cause more than $4 billion in damages as well as kill hundreds of people, the AP said on February 22, citing “a previously unreported analysis by the Department of Transportation that reviewed the risks of moving vast quantities of both fuels across the nation and through major cities.” The analysis was released last July but did not get much publicity, AP said.
"This underscores why we need to move as quickly as possible getting these regulations in place," Tim Butters, acting administrator for the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told AP.
“Based on past accident trends, anticipated shipping volumes and known ethanol and crude rail routes, the analysis predicted about 15 derailments in 2015, declining to about five a year by 2034,” the news wire said.
The reports have been brought to light in the wake of two oil-train derailments and fires in the past week, one in West Virginia on February 16, just a day after another one jumped the tracks in northern Ontario, Canada.
The fact that the cars in these last two accidents incorporated state-of-the-art safety features merely served to highlight the dangers posed by other components in the fuel-train transport chain. There is, for instance, the lack of control that even the most diligent of transport companies have over whether a rail breaks underneath the car, or an axle breaks, or whether a vehicle gets stuck on the tracks, said railroad engineering and safety specialist Allan Zarembski to AP. While newer design should guard against the car being punctured or leaking in such an event, it won’t stop events from happening, said Zarembski, who leads the University of Delaware program in engineering and rail safety, to AP.
“It’s troubling. You’ve got such an increase in the transportation of oil moving by rail and yet you still don’t have the question of the means of containment under control,” said Bruce Campbell, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, to The Globe and Mail. “These accidents continue to happen, and it’s really troubling that these cars were either new cars or cars that were retrofitted. They still puncture when they derail.”
It is especially concerning given that the cars in question have mostly been carrying oil from the Bakken shale fields of Montana and North Dakota, which have been shown to be much more flammable that regular crude, according to a U.S. government report last year.
After these most recent derailments, the Quinault Indian Nation renewed its call for an end to such shipments by rail.