Toxic Chemicals Spills and Waterways: What's the Solution?

May 2, 2014

There have been a dozen toxic spills from railroad cars in North America over the last year and three cases of river pollution in this region over the past four months.  Are these accidents happening more often?   Should this country have rail lines and toxic storage facilities so close to its waterways, and what’s being done to prevent future problems? 


Rivers shape land – creating flat areas along their banks – a relatively easy place to plant tracks,  and for nearly 200 years men have moved freight back and forth from boats to trains.  Kevin Book, an expert on energy transportation, says it makes perfect sense that oil and chemicals ride the rails.

“The point is that rail moves freight, and freight moves multi-modally, and it goes to places where people are, so not only do rail lines naturally go near rivers, they also naturally go near cities.  The point is to move things from barges to rails to trucks to factories to your home.”

A director at the D.C. based consultant Clearview Energy Partners, Book has crunched the numbers, and he says there’s a lot more oil now traveling by train.

“What we’re talking about is an increase from approximately 2,000 carloads in the first quarter of 2009, going up to more than 114,000 carloads probably by the end of this year, so it’s a pretty big change.”

And with more oil in transit, there have been more accidents. 

“The more you move, the more incidents you’re going to have, but blissfully it appears to be the case right now that the severity of the incidents is falling even as the number is increasing.”

One possible reason is stepped up government oversight.  On the same afternoon that more than a dozen cars left the tracks at Lynchburg, the Department of Transportation proposed a new set of rules for crude oil in transit.  One big concern, increasing amounts of Bakken crude – light oil produced out west by fracking.  Some experts say it’s more likely to explode or burn.

“There are some anecdotal reports and some early findings that suggest Bakken crude is indeed more volatile than the crude that his historically traversed America’s railways.”

Three years ago, the Association of American Railroads proposed its own reforms, calling for safer rail cars, but Book says only a quarter of the nation’s 80,000 railcars comply.

“It takes a certain amount of shop capacity to retrofit existing rail cars to any new standard, and it also takes a certain amount of shop capability to build new, safer rail cars.”

And there are some who say the new design doesn’t do enough to prevent punctures or explosions.  That could lead the National Transportation Safety Board to attempt stricter regulation of the cargo itself.  Even before the accident at Lynchburg, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx  sent letters to 37 companies asking for specific information about the flash point, gas content and other chemical aspects of the Bakken crude they intend to transport.