Investigative Reporter Details Dangers of Shipping Crude Oil by Rail

A recent derailment of a CSX train in Maryville, TN carrying hazardous chemicals was the latest example of the catastrophic dangers involved with shipping combustible materials through populated areas on aging railroad infrastructures. Most of the recent accidents have involved shipments of crude oil, including those in Lac-Megantic (Canada), Casselton, N.D., Lynchburg, Va., and at the Kanawha River in West Virginia. Earlier this year Marcus Stern, a reporter, gave a lengthy interview on NPR's Fresh Air to discuss his investigation into the problems. The interview can be read in its entirety here. Although some of the information revealed in the interview was shocking to those unfamiliar with the railroad industry, for those of us involved with these issues on a daily basis it was not surprising. It is unfortunately common, when huge profits are at stake, for railroads and the industries they serve to forgo the most basic safety measures in a quest to make as much money as possible.

Here are some of the main points:

- Within the last decade, rail shipments of crude oil have increased from about 9,500 rail cars to well over 400,000.

- Existing infrastructure was ill-equipped to handle the increase. The most publicized problem was with the tank cars used for such shipments. DOT-111 tank cars, designed in the 1960's to haul non-toxic materials, were now being used to ship unrefined crude oil that was highly combustible. When accidents occurred, the DOT-111 tank cars were prone to rupture, causing catastrophic explosions and chemical spills.

- The U.S. government's regulatory agencies charged with implementing safety restrictions on such shipments have been unwilling to act. Stern aptly notes that in 2009 President Obama appointed Cynthia Quarterman to head the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. She previously worked at a law firm that represented the very industries involved in the hazardous shipments. Stern says that "she went from representing them against regulators to being the top regulator." The failure of the government to step in and implement stricter regulations is not surprising given the massive amounts of money industry lobbyists contribute to political campaigns.

- Investment is also lacking in other areas of the shipping process. Stern discusses the deterioration of railroad bridges across the country, and the lack of any governmental oversight into their inspection and maintenance. There are also issues with insufficient crews on such trains, and the ongoing practice of leaving trains unattended so available crews can get mandated rest.

- Not mentioned in the interview, but also important, is the need for more track inspectors in the industry. The vast majority of train derailments are caused by defects in the track. A significant increase in train traffic requires a greater level of scrutiny over the quality of tracks over which these trains travel.

Hopefully the government, the railroad industry, and the shippers involved in this process address these issues soon.

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