David Bond | Oil trains in Bennington: Context and concerns

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A few weeks ago, an oil train appeared on the railway tracks separating North Bennington and Bennington and seems to be parked there for the winter. Each rail tanker notes it contains pressurized "non-odorized liquid petroleum gas" and is marked with the hazard card "1075," indicating an explosive gas. Parked within a stone's throw of many houses, this tanker train has caused growing alarm among local residents, state representatives, and has been reported in the Bennington Banner.

Many urgent questions have been raised in the past week, even as many of us have been frustrated by the lack of straight answers from state officials and the railway operator.

So how safe are these oil trains? A review of reported incidents from the federal Office of Hazardous Materials Safety shows that in the past seven years there have been 881 oil train accidents in the United States involving a leak, fire, or explosion. Most of these incidents were fairly minor, involving a spill of a gallon or less. Yet with many of these trains, especially those carrying pressurized liquid petroleum gases, a minor spill can quickly escalate into a major disaster.

Since 2010, there have been 49 "serious incidents" with oil trains in the United States. "Serious incidents" are defined as those resulting in human death, serious bodily injury, extensive property damage, or substantial environmental harm. The 2013 Lac-M gantic disaster, in which an exploding oil train killed 47 people and levelled the entire Quebec town, was widely seen as a wake-up call for rail regulators to update rules for oil trains and safeguard communities from the new risks they pose.

After Lac-M gantic, federal inspectors visited over a third of our nation's rail network to assess its ability to safely transport growing volumes of crude oil and natural gas. According to an AP report, these inspections revealed 24,000 defects on 58,000 miles of rail. While some repairs are now underway, many tracks still lag far behind the modern features and basic updates needed to ensure the safe transport of volatile hazardous materials like oil and gas on the railway.

In the four years since Lac-M gantic, 15 oil trains have derailed in the US. In about half of these accidents, the derailment resulted in catastrophic fires that often burned for days, forcing the evacuation of entire communities and causing millions of dollars of damage to property. (In a narrowly averted calamity in 2014, several oil tankers derailed but did not rupture in downtown Philadelphia a few blocks away from two major university campuses, three hospitals, and a dense residential neighborhood.)

The issue is not going away. In 2008, the Association of American Railroads reported shipping 9,500 carloads of crude oil by rail. By 2014, that number had skyrocketed to 540,000 carloads. Hydro-fracking has opened huge new domestic reserves of oil and gas in areas like North Dakota and Pennsylvania, areas not well-served by the traditional means of transporting fossil fuels: pipelines. Even as rail has offered new flexibility to the distribution of hydrocarbon energy, researchers have found that transporting oil and gas by rail causes roughly three and a half times more accidents than transport by pipelines.

Across the United States, the rising presence of oil trains - and their mishaps - have sparked rising concern over the risks they pose, especially in residential areas now frequented by these trains.

In 2016, a rusted lag bolt broke off the wooden railway tie in Mosier, OR, freeing the rail from an anchor. When an oil train passed through the town at 26 mph, the rail slipped. About 200 yards from a school, sixteen tankers came off the tracks. Four ruptured and exploded (according to the fire chief, the 96-tanker long train would have likely exploded in a "domino effect" had the gusting Columbia Gorge winds been present that day). The explosion was so intense it knocked out the highway access to the town and first responders struggled to reach the site. A few hours into the disaster, the entire town had to be evacuated.

Outraged, over 50 towns in the Pacific Northwest have now passed local resolutions and ordinances that attempt to bolster local resources to combat the dangers of oil trains and minimize the dangers they pose to neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals.

Such efforts are also underway in our region. Receiving upwards of 100,000 barrels of oil a day by rail, Albany, NY rather abruptly found itself recast as a major crude oil port during the Bakken boom of 2014 and 2015. With oil trains parked a dozen wide between the Hudson River and Albany neighborhoods, many citizens protested the worsening air quality and lack of adequate safeguards. Realizing that a de facto oil storage facility had sprouted up in a residential area, NYS DEC requested a new environmental review of the oil train port in 2016. Last month, Governor Cuomo also voiced his opposition to oil trains that have been parked in the Adirondacks.

These concerns have also visited Vermont in the past few years. In 2015, residents of Charlotte formed a community group - Citizens for Responsible Railroads - after they found oil trains being parked near homes and schools. Although unable to formally bar their presence, the bad press seems to have prompted Vermont Rail System (VRS) to park the oil trains elsewhere. Shelburne recently passed a new ordinance barring the storage of hazardous materials on rails within 250 meters of a school or waterway.

Beyond the uptick in national statistics and growing community concern over oil trains, what would an accident look like in Bennington? We might consider what happened in Hyndman, Pennsylvania on August 2 of this year. Just before daybreak, 37 cars of a slow moving 178-car oil train derailed on the outskirts of town. A few tankers careened down the rail embankment, split a house in two, and flattened a garage before igniting.

The rural community woke to an earsplitting explosion and the sight of a fireball rising above the town. Panic ensued, as citizens and first responders alike struggled to figure out what on earth was going on. After several confused starts, by noon a command post was established several miles from the crash site and a mandatory evacuation was extended to everyone living within a mile of the railway. The tanker cars burned for three days. Over a thousand residents had to find temporary shelter until extensive post-fire environmental tests of air and soil showed it safe to return.

Based on where the oil train is currently parked in Bennington, a similar-sized evacuation zone would include downtown North Bennington, the neighborhoods of Paran Acres and Harwood Hill, and Bennington College. If the oil train or the petroleum gas moved downhill, the resulting blast could wipe out much of Northside Drive and Molly Stark Elementary School.

So what caused such an explosion in Hyndman? An investigation revealed the inferno was caused by a new DOT-112 propane tanker that ruptured during the crash, torching one adjacent tanker carrying molten sulphur while it "burned vigorously" for 48 hours. Most of the other 37 cars that derailed were carrying soybean and other inflammable material. In other words, one single rail tanker carrying pressurized liquid petroleum gas caused a fire of such force it compelled the evacuation of an entire town and caused an estimated $7.5 million in property damages.

In North Bennington and Bennington, there are somewhere between 80 and 140 rail tanker cars carrying pressurized liquid petroleum gas. And there could be a good deal more, as repeated queries to VTrans and VRS asking for clarification have been rebuffed by both state officials and railway operators.

"I do understand that you are looking for answers to many questions below. Unfortunately, VTrans may not be your best resource for the answers," Daniel Delabruere, the Director of the Rail and Aviation Bureau at the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), told me. "The railroads are not required to report what is moved or what their safety plans are to VTrans."

The railway operator, Vermont Rail System (VRS), was equally mum. "Confidentiality requirements imposed by federal law limits certain railroad related information that can be shared publicly," Vice President of VRS Selden Houghton wrote in an emailed response. (When residents of Charlotte, VT complained of parked oil trains in their community, VRS President David Wulfson told VPR: "Thanks to 9/11 and the TSA, we're no longer allowed to share that information with anyone.")

These oil trains have smuggled new risks into our community under the cloak of federal preemption. In effect, these oil trains are re-zoning our homes, farms, and forests as industrial districts. This is happening without our consent and without the oversight that would normally accompany such a designation. For example, newly constructed storage facilities for liquid petroleum gas are required to have a number of special safety features, including multiple fire hydrants with elevated water capacity, road access around the storage facility, six-foot-high fencing, mandatory odorization, and earthen dikes to contain a leak of heavier-than-air petroleum gas. There are also siting rules that limit how close a liquid petroleum gas storage facility can be to schools, hospitals, parks, and other areas where people gather. All of these reasonable guidelines can be disregarded if the liquid petroleum gas is stored in trains instead. This is a problem.

David Bond, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, teaches on the environment and public action.

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