Why Explosive and Deadly Oil Train Accidents Will Keep Happening

Those fireball oil train derailments that have become increasingly common should continue unabated because no one -- not government regulators, not the oil companies and not the railroad industry -- has the desire (nor the requirement) to change things. 

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Those fireball oil train derailments that have become increasingly common should continue unabated because no one -- not government regulators, not the oil companies and not the railroad industry -- has the desire (nor the requirement) to change things.

Outgoing National Transportation Safety Board chair Deborah Hersman, in her last week in office, has spent the past two days at a rail safety forum warning that safety regulations for oil trains need to be updated as soon as possible, before the "body count" increases.

The fracking boom has created new deposits of oil in the United States, and those are typically transported by train. Hersman said crude oil traffic increased by almost 450 percent from 2005 to 2012. Older railcars that predate modern codes have been put back into service to keep up with the demand. At the same time, much of this oil comes from the Bakken region, which is thought to be more volatile than other crudes. That increases the risk of explosions and oil fires in the event of a derailment. And since most of those derailments happen in rural, isolated parts of the country, first responders often don't have the knowledge or facilities to deal with them.

Because of this, there have been several derailments (eight in the last year in the United States and Canada), causing massive fires. Fortunately, deaths have been rare, though in the case of Lac Megantic, Canada, 47 people were killed when a train derailed and exploded.

The Department of Transportation is in the process of writing new regulations, but Hersman said that process, which could take years, is too slow considering the consequences of not acting soon.

"They aren't moving fast enough," she said, per the AP. "We don't need a higher body count before they move forward ... That is a tombstone mentality."

That's not to say nothing is being done. The rail industry has agreed to some voluntary measures. Canada announced today that it will force companies to phase out older rail cars -- though that could just mean those cars will be used exclusively in the United States if we don't adapt similar rules.

As for the oil companies that own or lease the railcars and so would bear the not-inconsiderable cost of new or retrofitted tankers, they have been reluctant to admit that there is a need to change anything. Oil industry officials told the AP that they were skeptical that Bakken oil was more volatile than other crudes, saying "no data has been provided" and accusing researchers of "pulling this out of thin air." The government, in turn, has accused the oil industry of not providing requested data on Bakken oil.

The railroads, on the other hand, are happy to let oil companies and railcars take any and all of the blame -- though it may not be entirely theirs. As railroad engineer Christopher Barkan said at the forum, many derailments could have been prevented if the railroads were in better condition in the first place.

All of this costs money (a lot of money), which means no one is going to do it voluntarily. "I think at some point, you're going have to have some adult supervision," Hersman said tonight on PBS NewsHour. "And that is going to need to come from the regulator to step in and say, we have had enough accidents, we have had enough work on trying to get to a consensus. This is what the standard needs to be."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.