Communities throughout the U.S. and Canada are waking up to the dark side of North America’s energy boom: Trains hauling crude oil are crashing, exploding and spilling in record numbers as a fast-growing industry outpaces the federal government’s oversight.
In the 11 months since a runaway oil train derailed in the middle of a small town in Quebec, incinerating 47 people, the rolling virtual pipelines have unleashed crude oil into an Alabama swamp, forced more than 1,000 North Dakota residents to evacuate, dangled from a bridge in Philadelphia and smashed into an industrial building near Pittsburgh. The latest serious accident was April’s fiery crash in Lynchburg, Virginia, where even the mayor had been unaware oil was rolling through his city.
These dangerous moments on the rails raise questions about the safety of transporting increasing amounts of oil in mile-long chains of tank cars, some of them decades old. Community leaders and activists from Oregon to Alabama to Albany call the trains a disaster waiting to happen — despite the Department of Transportation’s efforts to play catchup through a series of emergency orders, agreements with industry and proposed regulations being reviewed by the White House.