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.
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.
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.