Heavy crude coming to a railroad near you

Train derailment
James River Oil Train Derailment, May 1, 2014. Photo by: Waterkeeper Alliance, Inc.

The latest in a string of catastrophic oil train derailments occurred in West Virginia on February 16th, dumping an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil in to a tributary of the Kanawha River. All indications are that it’s only a matter of time before disaster strikes in California.

That’s because the oil industry is poised to ramp up shipments of heavy tar sands and Bakken crude oil by rail from Canada to California refineries, five of which are in the Bay Area. California has already seen an almost 14-fold increase in railway shipments of oil since 2009, and the number heading to the Bay Area will continue to increase if refineries win approval for proposed oil-by-rail projects in Pittsburg, Benicia and Richmond.

Concern about oil trains carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota has been growing for the last couple of years, particularly after a fiery derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec killed 47 people in 2013. And although the U.S. Department of Transportation has been phasing out the older tank cars blamed for that tragedy, newer industry standards are proving inadequate: the train that just recently derailed in West Virginia carried the newer model cars, which still ruptured and caught fire despite the additional safety upgrades.

Oil from tar sands, although less flammable than Bakken crude, is very heavy and therefore poses special hazards if spilled into a waterway. Traditional spill response measures involve containment and cleanup of surface water, since most crude oil floats. Oil sands, however, sink to the bottom and do not appreciably degrade over time, as evidenced by a 2010 spill into Talmadge Creek, Michigan, that needed to be dredged 3 years later because of persistent sediment contamination.

So far in California we have been lucky. Last December a train derailed and dumped a load of corn into the Feather River, but it could easily have been an oil train, which travels the same route every week. A spill of tar sands crude into the same waterway would cause long-term contamination and be almost impossible to clean. The federal government predicts that in the next two decades oil trains will derail an average of 10 times a year; a severe accident in a highly populated area could kill 200 people and cause $6 billion in damage.

Save The Bay is deeply concerned about the risks that crude oil trains pose to San Francisco Bay and other watersheds across the state. While increased oversight of oil train shipments, stronger tanker car regulations and funding for emergency response are critical, we believe that shipping of crude oil via rail is inherently dangerous, and presents an unacceptable threat to the people and wildlife of the Bay Area.