Big cities scramble to be prepared for an oil train disaster

By | September 18, 2015

(WHY NOT GET READY FOR A PREDICTABLE CATASTROPHE?) While railroads long have carried hazardous materials through congested urban areas, cities are now scrambling to formulate emergency plans and to train firefighters amid the latest safety threat: a 50-fold increase in crude shipments that critics say has put millions of people living or working near the tracks at heightened risk of derailment, fire and explosion.

After a series of fiery crashes, The Associated Press conducted a survey of nearly a dozen big cities that, collectively, see thousands of tank cars each week, revealing a patchwork of preparedness. Some have plans specifically for oil trains; others do not. Some fire departments have trained for an oil train disaster; others say they’re planning on it. Some cities are sitting on huge quantities of fire-suppressing foam, others report much smaller stockpiles.

The AP surveyed emergency management departments in Chicago; Philadelphia; Seattle; Cleveland; Minneapolis; Milwaukee; Pittsburgh; New Orleans; Sacramento, California; Newark, New Jersey; and Buffalo, New York. The responses show emergency planning remains a work in progress even as crude has become one of the nation’s most common hazardous materials transported by rail. (…)

With several trains rumbling past his Chicago home each day, Tony Phillips is keenly aware of the threat.

“If it happened here, we would be toast,” said the 77-year-old painter, who lives with his wife in a converted 19th-century factory in the Pilsen neighborhood that shudders when one of the mile-long trains rattles past.

Phillips knows the chances of a crash right outside his bedroom window are remote. Nevertheless, when he hears the trains go by, “it gives me a little shiver,” he said. “It’s like a ghost coming along with this tremendous potential for destruction.” (…)

Cities have responded with varying levels of urgency. Milwaukee, for example, provided basic training in crude-by-rail shipments and accidents to more than 800 firefighters, sent its hazmat team to Colorado for advanced training on oil-train accident response and meets regularly with railroad officials. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, says it has not yet conducted training exercises or met with railroad officials but will do so once its oil-train emergency plan is complete.

On the federal level, new rules aim to reduce the chances of a catastrophic derailment by lowering speed limits in cities, ordering railroads to install electronic braking systems and requiring a phase-in of stronger tank cars beginning in 2018.

The oil industry has challenged some rules in court while critics say the standards don’t go far enough, lamenting that tens of thousands of older, rupture-prone tank cars will remain on the tracks for years to come.

Some residents and activists also complain about a lack of transparency from the railroads, which have fought to keep details about oil-train routing and frequency from the public, citing competitive and security concerns. The federal government agreed in May to end its requirement that railroads notify states about large shipments of crude, but quickly reversed course amid a public backlash.

(read more) from AP / Northwest Indiana Times

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