Andrew J Pragacz

Starting June 7th rail companies in New York State, must supply information about trains carrying North Dakota Bakken oil, to the State government. Thanks to this rule change we now know that between 20 and 35 trains a week carry this special type of oil through upstate New York and the Hudson Valley. The number of cars is unknown, but there can be over 100 cars per oil train.   Bakken oil is unlike other crude oils; crude oil being composed of all manner of fuels and tars, that typically travel in rail cars known by name DOT 111. The Bakken crude oil, produced largely through fracking, according to one newspaper is “more volatile and more similar to jet fuel than traditional crude oil.”

This rule change comes in the wake of large scale oil train disasters like in Lac Magantic, Quebec, Casselton, North Dakota, and Lynchburg, Virginia. Last summer the small Canadian town of Lac Magantic was literally blown into oblivion, along with 45 of its citizens, by a Bakken oil train explosion. Even more disturbing than the preventable death and destruction was the company’s lack of adequate insurance. While damages are estimated at over $ 1 billion, the company was insured for only $25 million, leaving tax payers to foot the rest of the bill. (The company declared bankruptcy almost immediately following the explosion).

The new disclosure rules were put in place presumably to enlighten the current debate within the legislature over what sort of bonding requirements NYS should have in place for line operators and owners moving oil trains through the State.

The oil moving through the State, following I-90 from Jamestown, to Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, and Albany and then down through the Hudson Valley, is not “normal” crude oil but a highly explosive type from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota. Types of crude vary naturally throughout the world as do drilling and stabilization processes (things done to the oil that makes it safer—not safe—to transport). Contrary to the popular movie plot scenarios, crude oil is not typically explosive. Heavy components like the tar you put on your driveway or the bitumen construction crews use in asphalt, balancelighter more explosive components like kerosene, propane, and gasoline. Bakken crude, however, in part due to natural variation and in part due to the fracking process through which much of the oil is captured, contains a lot more light and explosive components. Thus, this type of oil is a huge cause for concern.

Beside the fact that Bakken oil is akin to jet fuel, trains carrying Bakken oil are so dangerous because the DOT 111 rail cars are rated to prevent explosions. The DOT 111 that carry this oil was not designed to store such volatile liquids, nor do companies in the Bakken stabilize (as they do in Texas, for example) the oil before putting into oil cars. The oil is so dangerous that no pipeline company will allow this substance to flow through their lines! This, of course, is one reason why the oil is moved by train and not pipeline. The Federal Government called for phasing out DOT 111s over the next two years and recently declared that DOT 111s are not safe to carry Bakken crude.

Nationwide very little is known about what lines oil trains use and how much is transported out of the Bakken. Estimates are that the amount of oil pumped in the Bakken nears 1 million barrels a day. Nor are there any restrictions on the transportation of oil by rail or national bonding requirements. This lack of disclosure and serious threat to life and property has activated citizens across the country. After an oil train derailment in Seattle, Washington in July, activists across that state staged several sit- ins on tracks to draw attention to the this little discussed (but highly visible) threat. Citizens in Portland Oregon took over a county safety office in similar protest. They refer to trains as “bomb trains” or “bomb cars” thanks to their tubular design and bomb-like potential.

How much destruction and death would an oil train explosion cause in a metropolitan area like Seattle, Syracuse, Binghamton, or Albany? CSX Corporation, the company that owns oil train lines in New York, suggests an evacuation of half a mile in case of an explosion and 1,000 feet in case of a spill. Despite the hopelessly insufficient evacuation plans, (do you know where you are evacuating to in the case of an oil train explosion, or how much warning there is before a bomb train detonates?) it’s clear that the impact would be amazingly high.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s