As U.S. consumers' appetites for energy continues to grow, the Bakken
oil fields of North Dakota has become an important source of domestically
produced crude oil, which can later be distilled and refined into gasoline,
kerosene, and chemical agents used to make a variety of household products.
The transportation of thousands of barrels of highly flammable materials,
however, has created public safety concerns that have been exacerbated
by numerous incidents in the past few years. Just last November, a train
carrying oil tank cars
traveling to Florida derailed and spilled an unknown amount of crude oil into nearby marshland.
The highly flammable oil also resulted in an inferno whose flames could
be seen several miles away.
Outdated Trains, Low Liability
According to the
Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the volume of crude oil transported per year is increasing dramatically,
from approximately 65,600 carloads in 2011 to 257,450 carloads in 2012,
an increase of 292 percent. Yet, the oil tank cars that are currently
transporting this highly hazardous material were not originally designed
to withstand Bakken oil's volatility. In fact, the majority of crude
oil shipped today was
originally introduced in the 1960s and used for nonflammable materials like liquid fertilizer. In contrast,
Bakken oil requires pressurized tank cars that are specifically designed
for its high levels of flammable gasses as well as thicker tank walls
that can withstand falls in cases of derailment.
Contributing to the dangers of transporting crude oil is the fact that
most freight railroad insurance does not adequately cover the financial
aftermath of train derailments. For example, the losses associated with
an oil train derailment in
Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people, is estimated to cost more than one billion
dollars. The rail company responsible for the accident however, carried
only $25 million in insurance coverage and ultimately declared bankruptcy.
The practical effect of the rail company's failure to appropriately
insure against its risks is to place the burden of compensation on taxpayers
in the forms of higher health premiums and property taxes. This cost-shifting
allows rail companies who are responsible for the harms to evade responsibility
while their negligence causes severe health and environmental consequences
in the affected communities.
Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Takes Action
Following the Lac-Mégantic derailment and the conclusions of the
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that the accident "shows
that railroad accidents involving crude oil have a potential for disastrous
consequences and environmental contamination equal to that of the worst
onshore pipeline accidents," the
FRA has introduced regulations that would enhance tank car standards, institute a classification and
testing program for the gases and liquids to be transported, and update
operational requirements for high-hazard flammable trains that include
braking controls and speed restrictions. The new rules also mandates a
new timetable for the phase-out of older tank cars to be replaced by new
train cars specially designed to withstand flammable materials.
Oil trains travel through communities and neighborhoods everyday. At The
Pittman Firm, our extensive experience with man-made disasters such as
the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico means that we are ready to help
those who have been affected by oil pollution. Call us today for a free
consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.