By Roy L Hales
During the past seven years, the amount of oil by rail traffic to the coast has increased over 5,000%. This has resulted in a corresponding surge in the number of oil train derailments, spills, fires, and explosions. There was more oil spilled from trains in 2013, alone, than the previous four decades. As some of these incidents were caused by misalignment or failure of railroad bridges, a grassroots co-alition of Riverkeeper, ForestEthics, and 22 Waterkeeper organizations inspected 250 railway crossings. The result is a shocking report, on Americas’ neglected bridges & exploding oil trains.
Cracks, Crumbling and Eroding Concrete & Exposed Rebar
Deadly Crossing Neglected Bridges and Exploding Oil Trains documents the cracks, crumbling and eroding concrete, or exposed rebar found in 46% (114/250) of the bridges they inspected.
- Two of the three concrete footings appear of the Ebey Slough rail bridge, in Marysville (WA) appear to have been undermined by tidal currents.
- “A bridge crossing the Skagit River (WA) has sunken, cracked,
and eroded piers and significant rust on beams. This bridge is upstream from a water treatment plant that serves about 56,000.”
- ” … significant cracks in the bridge pilings from settling, and erosion under the high water line underneath bridge footings” were reported in the railway bridge crossing the Spokane River near East Indiana street
- “The Bridge crossing the Lake Merritt Channel, a tributary of the San Francisco Bay, has cracked concrete pilings with exposed steel rebar. A derailment on this bridge would carry oil directly into the heart of Oakland and the Bay.”[1.Deadly Crossing Neglected Bridges and Exploding Oil Trains, Appendix A, pp 20-25]
Some of the bridges are in the video below.
How Could Bridges Fall Into Such Disrepair?
The Federal Railway Administration laid down firm regulations:
” … railroads had to develop several inspection, monitoring, and recordkeeping procedures that, at a minimum, require:
- Annual inspections of rail bridges by qualified, professional bridge engineers;
- Special inspections of rail bridges if severe weather or other events damaged a bridge;
- Inventories of all bridges, their locations, and safe load capacities;
- Filing systems (electronic or not) where railroads must keep records of bridge designs, inspections, repairs, and modifications;
- Direct supervision of all bridge inspections and repairs by qualified inspectors; and
- Internally-conducted audits of bridge management programs and inspections by the railroads.”[2. Deadly Crossing, p 12]
Unfortunately, railways are left to supervise and apply this standard themselves.
Increase of Oil-by-rail Accidents
Meanwhile, according to a draft Department of Transportation report with the unwieldy title: Hazardous Materials: Enhanced Tank Car Standards and Operational Controls for High-Hazard Flammable Trains; Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the number of oil-by-rail accidents has grown exponentially and so has the increased probability of a catastrophic event occurring.”[3.Department of Transportation, Draft Report, Hazardous Materials: Enhanced Tank Car Standards and Operational Controls for High-Hazard Flammable Trains; Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, p 2]
“The United States has experienced a dramatic growth in the quantity of flammable liquids being shipped by rail in recent years. According to the rail industry, in the U.S. in 2009, there were 10,800 carloads of crude oil shipped by rail. In 2013, there were 400,000 carloads. In the Bakken region, over one million barrels a day of crude oil was produced in March 2014, most of which is transported by rail.
“Transportation of flammable liquids poses safety and environmental risks. The risk of flammability is compounded in the context of rail transportation because petroleum crude oil and ethanol are commonly shipped in large unit trains [4.Hazardous Materials, p 2]
This DOT report estimated that there could be 5 to 15 annual mainline derailments a year (some of which will spill and/or explode), and the damages from these incidents is between $4.5 billion and “$14 billion over a 20-year period …”[5. ibid, p 10]
Environmental Justice Issues
This raises environmental justice issues, because 60% of American communities within the blast zone[6. Deadly Crossing, p 11] ( the one mile evacuation zone in the case of an oil train fire) qualify as environmental justice communities.
This is especially true in California, where ForestEthics found that 80% of the 5.5 million Californians within the blast zone were either poor or people of colour. This percentage is even higher if the search is restricted to cities.
“The report shows that the highest threat from oil trains in California is aligned with race and income and demonstrates how federal and state laws requiring protections for vulnerable populations are routinely ignored in the permitting and policy-making around oil train routes, infrastructure and safety requirements.” – Deadly Crossing [7. ibid]
According to Marcie Keever, of Friends of the Earth, there is currently an onslaught of fossil fuels by rail projects occurring along the entire West Coast, from California north into British Columbia.
Three of these states are among the 15 mentioned in Deadly Crossing.
There are currently proposals that could add 69 new coal or crude trains to the rails in Washington state. Theses trains could stretch out for around 114 miles.
Three groups – North Sound Baykeeper, Puget Soundkeeper and Spokane Riverkeeper – inspected some of the bridges in this state and reported defects in 36.
The Columbia River, which runs between Washington and Oregon, is currently threatened by seven large fossil fuel proposals, four of which are oil-by-rail. If they are all accepted, 100 trains a week could be added to the rails.
The largest of these projects is Tesoro Savage, which “would require at least four unit trains per day, with each train extending for approximately 1.5 miles.”
“The proposed oil terminal in Vancouver, WA would greatly increase oil trains along the Columbia River, and an oil spill anywhere along the Columbia would be disastrous,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, in a news release introducing Deadly Crossing.
Columbia Riverkeeper inspected five of Oregon’s bridges (Klickitat, White Salmon, Little White Salmon, Beacon Rock Moorage, and BNSF at Columbia Way in Vancouver) and found “something to report” at each site.
This supports a recent statement by Oregon state officials that half the state’s bridges could collapse when “the big one,” a 9.0 earthquake, strikes.
The only Californian group participating in the Deadly Crossing is San Francisco Baykeeper, which reported five defective bridges in their area.
There are also entries from Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia. [8. ibid, pp 26-29]
Deadly Crossings calls for an immediate inspection of all bridges that carry oil trains.
Any found to have deficiencies must be closed until they are corrected and the oil industry must stop using bridges that it knows are deficient.
The federal government needs to implement new rail safety rules and broaden the Federal Railway Administration’s mission to include responsibility for all rail infrastructure. Thus includes the finances needed to carry out its’ broader mandate.
Local governments need more information and the authority to say “no” when they do not want massive oil-by-rail projects forced upon them.[9. ibid, p17]
(Click here to access the full report: Deadly Crossing Neglected Bridges and Exploding Oil Trains)