Feeble, Fiery, and Frustrating: The Top 10 reasons to hate Obama’s new standards for explosive oil trains

July 23, 2014
An oil train

Today after months of study and, unfortunately, time spent listening to the oil industry, President Obama proposed weak new standards for oil trains. How weak? Well, they give the oil industry a license to continue threatening the safety of millions of Americans with hazardous, flammable oil trains. I’d hoped that when these proposed regulations were announced they would be a step in the right direction — getting dangerous exploding tank cars off the tracks, rerouting trains around population centers, and giving communities the ability to say to no. Especially since the nationwide danger of oil train routes is so clearly visible on our website www.blast-zone.org. But, the administration instead prioritized the oil industry’s agenda to barrel dangerous tank cars through our cities and by our homes, leaving communities and emergency responders high and dry.

So, what are the problems with these new rules? Here we go in 10 easy steps:

  1. There is no “opt out” choice: Our railroad infrastructure was built to carry goods between population centers, not haul hazardous flammable crude oil. Communities have the right to choose if they will accept three million gallons of explosive oil per train speeding through downtown, past homes, schools, stadiums, and drinking water supplies. Right now nearly every downtown in North America, more than 25 million people, need the right to say no.
  2. Rusting tanker car ban: In June 2014 Canada immediately banned the worst 5,000 tank cars used for flammables, but the best America can do is a multi-year phase out with industry exemptions? We need to see old standard tank cars banned today. Not in two years. Not in six years. No caveats. Right now.
  3. Emergency notification: Notification rules apply to trains with 35 tanker cars or more, but even a single burning tanker car is far more fire than any municipal fire department can handle. The rules don’t change the fact that all first responders can do with a burning oil train is evacuate those within a half mile or more of the track, wait and watch until the train burns itself out.
  4. Brakes: The rules invite us to specify if we want tank cars with the good brakes or not. Seriously? Hint to the Obama Administration: Yes, we’ll go with the upgraded brakes.
  5. Speed limits: Meaningful speed restrictions are only proposed for some populated areas, with 30 mph speed limits in a few select urban areas — but still 50 mph through small towns! If speed helps with safety (and we know it does) why aren’t we talking about slowing these trains down everywhere?
  6. Derailing: The speed limits the administration is proposing aren’t even close to safe, at least according to rail safety experts:“When you look at cars derailing at speeds of 30, 40 miles an hour…there’s likely going to be a puncture, and in that case we need to do what we can to prevent the thermal effects.” – Karl Alexy, Federal Railroad Administration, April 2014
  7. Tank car standards: There are three proposed grades of new tank cars: two are completely dangerous for any flammable liquid, while the third might be passable for hot corn oil. How about proposing a tank car that doesn’t rupture, at all, at standard operating speeds above 30 mph? (Incidentally, “thermal effects” in the quote above means “tank cars lying in a blazing pool of hazardous liquid” — oil, ethanol, you name it. Why don’t the standards require thermal protections?)
  8. Routes: The routing choices they give us are (to paraphrase), a) threaten most urban centers, b) threaten thousands of small towns, and/or c) threaten rivers, lakes, and groundwater. Where is d) for none of the above? Oh yeah — and the railroads get to keep their routing decisions secret, too.
  9. Notification: There’s a real logic gap in this one. Railroads are required to notify states and emergency responders about which tracks are in use for trains hauling more than a million gallons (~35 tank cars) of oil. But a High Hazard Flammable Train (that’s what the secretary of transportation calls them) or HHFT is defined as having 20 or more tank cars. What makes trains with 20 to 35 tank cars dangerous enough to be an HHFT, but not important enough to warn the public about?
  10. Train categorization: The new category of “high hazard flammable trains” is a terrible acronym, HHFT. “Bomb trains” is much easier. 

Bonus: The administration also announced today that the Bakken crude carried in oil trains is at the “high end of volatility compared to other crude oils.” Nothing in these new rules requires stabilizing the dangerous fracked shale oil from the Bakken, but they want to know if we think it’s a good idea. Yes. Yes we do.

The Obama administration needs to go back to the drawing board on this one. It’s time to stop listening to big oil and write some new regulations that put citizens and public safety first. The movement to stop oil by rail is growing every day and we won’t back down until we see Obama putting people over profits.