California Officials Concerned Over Oil and Rail Industry Secrecy4 min read

Natural Resources Defense Council

One thing about these industries – when the oil and rail barons get together, tidy profits are sure to be made. But at whose expense? And if the latest mile long oil by rail collaboration has nothing to hide, why won’t they tell the public what is in the rail tanker cars, where they’re going and how often they’ll be passing through town?

It turns out that the oil and rail industries won’t even share that information with the federal government, despite having promised it months ago. The main regulator of rail safety, Cynthia Quarterman, chief of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) complained recently that the U.S. oil industry is not sharing important data on oil-by-rail shipments that may help prevent accidents. A U.S. Senator noted that “This lack of cooperation from the energy industry confirms all of our worst fears of their failure to prioritize safety.”

Crude oil by rail shipments have grown forty fold over the last five years, and the last year has seen more spills and accidents than the previous thirty combined (see this interactive map from McClatchy news service). The decimated downtown of Lac Megantic, Quebec, the site of a terrible oil train derailment last summer that took 47 lives, stands as a stark reminder of the safety risks that communities along oil train routes face.

California officials have also expressed concern over being kept in the dark about crude oil rail activity in densely populated areas. Last week, leaders in Berkeley and Richmond grew so concerned over crude oil trains running through their cities that resolutions passed with unanimous support to oppose crude by rail.

Unfortunately, much of the legal authority to regulate rail safety lies with the federal government, which has been playing a game of catch up in the midst of what they have termed the Bakken Blitz of exponential growth in crude oil rail transport. Federal action has been slow, prone to weakening in response to industry protest, and woefully inadequate.

Given the serious public safety risks of mile long crude oil trains suddenly entering Richmond, putting that already over-burdened community in even greater peril, we joined three other groups in a lawsuit to stop the Kinder Morgan crude oil terminal last week. Not only did the regional air quality management district quietly hand Kinder Morgan a permit for the terminal without any public process, they didn’t even notify elected officials in Richmond of the mile long crude trains.

The Kinder Morgan crude oil terminal in Richmond may have a twin in the McClellan railyard outside of Sacramento, which suddenly began taking crude oil trains on the sly without any public notification or environmental review. In this case the facility didn’t have a permit for the crude oil rail operation but was quickly granted one from the regional air district without any fine and dodging public notice.

One recent editorial in Sacramento cautioned of the “devastation that can happen when corners are cut on safety and local officials are kept in the dark,” recalling the deadly natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010, that took 8 lives and leveled almost 40 homes due to negligence from that utility. Accidents happen, but with much greater volumes of unusually volatile crude oil moving by rail, lax safety standards, and so many communities situated around rail lines, we are virtually guaranteeing serious public safety hazards.

At this point it seems like the industry has crossed a line taking our collective public safety for granted as an expendable commodity of their trade. It’s past time to join the cities that have already acted: Seattle, Spokane, Albany, Berkeley, Richmond and counting: No more crude oil by rail until the oil and rail industries get their act together and figure out how to do it safely.

These two brothers, Aji and Adonis, put it best when they recently performed the song “Exploding Trains” outside Seattle’s City Hall, before that city passed its resolution opposing crude oil trains. When older brother Aji learned about the exploding trains, he decided to write the song to bring attention to the dangers of oil trains and burning fossil fuels, exhibiting wisdom well beyond his years and some real musical talent.

This article was originally published at Switchboard, the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council.