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Jan Lee headshot

Crude Oil Spills Prompt New Questions About Safety

Words by Jan Lee

The derailments of two cargo trains earlier this week are prompting questions about safety precautions for North America's rail systems. They're also spurring debate about whether crude oil shipments have a place on the rails that pass through America's small towns.

More than 60 people were evacuated from their homes in the small town of Montgomery, West Virginia, after a CSX train carrying crude to a refinery derailed and caught fire. One house was destroyed, and the town's drinking water was contaminated by an oil spill.

Less than 48 hours earlier, another oil train traveling through eastern Canada burst into flames when it derailed in a forested area near Timmins, Ontario. The fire was still burning late this week. Rail authorities say the train and the tracks had both been inspected prior to the train departing the depot.

The West Virginia accident occurred during adverse weather that had prompted weather and driving advisories. It is unclear whether the Ontario accident was related to weather issues, although most of the eastern portion of Canada has been experiencing increased snow and ice, prompting travel and weather warnings.

With the increase in crude oil shipments across the U.S. and Canada, some environmental groups are expressing concern about the safety of residents along rail routes. They noted that many areas are unprepared for an accident resulting in oil spills to drinking water or uncontrolled fire, such as the incident that occurred this week in West Virginia. Forest Ethics pointed out that an estimated 25 million Americans live along rail routes that carry crude shipments and that, since 2008, rail shipments have increased by 4,000 percent. Its oil blast zone website provides a map of the crude oil shipments that cross North America, which extend across most states and provinces.

It is unclear why commercial train traffic that carries flammable cargo is not restricted during adverse weather conditions, such as those West Virginia and Ontario have recently experienced. In Idaho and eastern British Columbia, where adverse conditions commonly restrict travel, train transports are rarely restricted during difficult weather. With many rural areas in the two countries depending on volunteer resources for firefighting or search-and-rescue, some areas have begun to ask if they are adequately prepared to respond to potential derailments. In May 2014, the Department of Transportation stepped up regulations requiring rail operators to advise State Emergency Response Commissions when more than a million gallons will be shipped through their states.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs responded to the announcement by noting that while communications about intended shipments are always helpful for local communities, "such notifications would do little to help local responders adequately prepare for a rail incident."

Although both the U.S. and Canada have promised increased safety regulations to prevent accidents such as last the 2013 devastating rail disaster in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, it would appear that a lot more thought needs to go into safety precautions for transporting North America's most controversial commercial product.

Image credit: Roy Luck

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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