One Day Soon, Dallas May Be Less Likely to Blow Up in a Fiery Oil Train Crash

Freight trains that everyone says are way too old to still be working keep carrying more and more gallons of volatile crude oil through busy cities. What could possibly go wrong? Explosions. And do Unfair Park readers live in the path of these potential explosion sites? Probably.

Dallas, like most major cities, is served by a national network of freight railroads lines. (Hey! We should build a logistics center!) That's a good thing, except that as the domestic oil industry depends heavily on rail to transport oil, dangerous accidents are happening more frequently.

The crude oil coming from North Dakota's Bakken region is driving much of the boom and is concerning regulators the most. It's making stops all over the country, including here, and the crude is more explosive than regular oil. It was a just over year ago when a train full of Bakken formation crude oil fell off the tracks in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, causing what witnesses described as a "hell on wheels" that killed 47 people and decimated the city center.

The accidents since have been less deadly but still destructive. Rail cars in the United States spilled a total of 1.15 million gallons of crude in 2013 -- an amount higher than the previous four decades combined, according to a newspaper analysis published earlier this year.

Railway industry groups have been shifting all blame to the tank cars, which are owned by the oil industry. They say the equipment is too old. The Department of Transportation agrees, though it's now suggesting that the rail companies make some fixes of their own to improve oil-by-rail safety.

But despite the federal government's recent interest in explosive trains, environmental groups say regulators aren't acting fast enough. Using data from train routes, oil terminals and a railway trade publication, an environmental advocacy group called Forest Ethics has created a handy map showing every train route in the United States that hosts freight trains carrying crude oil.

The yellow lines are within one mile of a US DOT "Potential Impact Zone" in the event of an oil train fire. Zooming in shows that routes running through Fort Worth and Dallas put the city centers within half a mile of a US DOT "Evacuation Zone" if an oil train were to derail.

Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced in a press conference in late July that he wanted to make massive changes to the oil and train industries to keep American cities safer. "We need a new world order on how this stuff moves," he announced. But his "new world order" turned out to actually be fairly conservative, just a proposed set of new rules that companies would have a few years to get the hang of. He said trains would need to improve their braking systems and go slower, while oil companies would phase out their old rail cars and replace them with new, safer, sturdier ones. But under the DOT's proposed timeline, companies would have two to five years to make that replacement.

Environmental groups would like to see the tank cars upgraded a little sooner than two years -- like, tomorrow.

"The Department of Transportation projections show extreme, unacceptable risk posed by an outdated and accident-prone type of rail car," an attorney for Earthjustice, another environmental group, said in a statement. Earthjustice, Forest Ethics and Sierra club filed a petition together a few weeks ago calling for an emergency ban on what they describe as "dangerous and outdated rail cars."

The oil industry has previously resisted demands to upgrade its cars but hasn't had much to say about the DOT's latest proposal. "The government can and should take steps to ensure greater safety without stalling the energy renaissance," the American Petroleum Institute's chief exec told the Wall Street Journal.

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn