Trains carrying crude oil have derailed twice in less than two months; both were carrying crude from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana. Thursday 21 of 105 cars left the tracks south of Galena, Illinois. The explosion sent fireballs high into the sky. Last month’s accident happened in West Virginia. After that explosion, the oil spilled into a river and an entire town was forced to evacuate.
The area of Thursday’s derailment is very rural; firefighter’s only access route was a bike path. Without the ability to have all of their equipment available, they were forced to let the fire burn itself out. The Galena City Administrator advised evacuating a one-square-mile area because a propane tank is located in the area. Only a single family complied.
There has been increased discussion regarding the transportation of crude by rail. In 2008 there were 9,500 carloads of crude oil shipped by train cars; the number jumped to 500,000 in 2014. The increase is due to the rich Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana. Pipeline restrictions have forced the petroleum companies to ship by rail.
Each tank of oil, on each train car, carries 70,000 gallons of crude. Numerous accidents have occurred in both the United States and Canada since 2008. The most horrific was a derailment near a town in Quebec. The explosion and fire virtually destroyed the town and killed 47 people.
There were no injuries in the rural area where Thursday’s explosion occurred. The cars on this train were the newer 1232 model. They were built to resist leaking in the event of a derailment, but these and the cars last month continued to explode and burst into flames.
An increase in the number of carloads of crude has raised the concerns of environmentalists and residents of the towns where trains pass in close proximity. Between 1975 and 2012 a total of 800,000 gallons of oil were spilled relating to train accidents. In 2013 the number of gallons reached 1.15 million in a single year. These figures do not include incidents in Canada.
When Congress passed the Keystone XL pipeline and President Obama vetoed the measure, discussion increased involving the comparison of the safety of transporting crude by rail or pipeline. Neither appear to be realistic. Pipeline leaks release greater content. When trains are traveling at 40 to 50 miles an hour and a car derails there is a greater possibility of explosion and resulting fire.
Safety boards of both industries believe that they know the solution. Both industries must develop safer products, while the nation begins to prepare for the use alternative sources of energy. Pipelines must be built in such a way to resist corrosion as well as withstanding the heat and pressure caused by the forced flow of crude oil through them. Tanks positioned on train cars must be able to withstand a derailment and maintain a seal keeping the crude contained. Reducing speeds could also decrease the chance of derailments.
Both the pipeline and railroad industries are resistant to add additional improvements because of related costs.
Once again this appears to be a situation of safety vs. profit. If nothing is done, which appears to be the case, another disaster such as the one that occurred in Quebec is likely to occur.
By James Turnage