Oil Trains and Environmental Justice

Stop Crude By Rail
A local activist protests crude by rail in Martinez. Photo by Daniel Adel.

Crude oil is being shipped from Canada via rail to refineries along the West Coast, exposing millions of Californians to health and environmental risks. With five major refineries in the East Bay, the number of trains carrying crude oil into the Bay Area could increase exponentially, posing severe risks to our local waterways and communities.

In the Bay Area, refineries in Benicia, Martinez, and Richmond are targets for expansion, putting the surrounding communities and our Bay at risk of a disastrous oil spill. Tar sands fuel is harder to clean out of waterways than a typical oil spill, since the heavy crude quickly sinks to the bottom and destroys habitat.  The fuel mixture used for transit is also explosive enough to combust on impact. And this dangerous substance is being transported using outdated equipment that is not designed for carrying explosive hazardous materials.

Bomb trains in your backyard

Millions of Californians live near train routes carrying crude oil and may not even be aware that highly hazardous train cars are passing through their backyards and near their local rivers. Thanks to the work of ForestEthics, you can use this online tool to map the nearest oil trains to any address in the U.S. or Canada. Simply plug in your address to see how far you live from a blast zone, the 1-mile evacuation area recommended after an oil train derailment.

In a recent report entitled Crude Injustice on the Rails, ForestEthics and Communities for a Better Environment compared U.S. Census data with blast zone data. They uncovered a disturbing fact — 80% of the 5.5 million Californians with homes in the blast zone live in environmental justice communities. According to Matt Krogh of ForestEthics, “In California you are 33 percent more likely to live in the blast zone if you live in a nonwhite, low income, or non-English speaking household.” Perhaps it is not surprising that the communities whose environments have been most degraded by industry would experience the highest potential risk by crude by rail.

Local resistance

The Bay Area is known for local resistance and this issue is no exception. “Crude by rail will only come here if we allow it,” said Greg Karras, Senior Scientist at Communities for a Better Environment. Bay Area activists have spoken out through peaceful protest and direct action in the Refinery Corridor between Martinez and Benicia. While federal regulation changes may take years to improve the safety of tanker trains, local action may be the best way to limit the number of oil trains rolling through our communities.

The railways are governed by federal law, but the refineries themselves must abide by local regulations. Last year, the City of Richmond issued an expansion permit to Chevron with greenhouse gas emissions standards limiting the amount of high-sulfur oil it can process, which will limit the amount of dirty crude the Chevron refinery can process. Communities for a Better Environment is also leading a coalition in advocating to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for stricter emissions standards for Bay Area refineries. Stronger regulation of refinery emissions would limit the amount of dirty fuels that could be refined in the Bay Area and ultimately reduce the number of crude oil shipments into the region.

As we’ve understood at Save The Bay for a long time, focusing locally can make a major impact beyond just your local community.  We will continue to keep you up to date on how oil trains impact the Bay Area. Learn more about crude by rail and how to get involved with Communities for a Better Environment.