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A CSX Corp train hauling North Dakota crude derailed in West Virginia last week, setting a number of cars ablaze, destroying a house and forcing the evacuation of two towns in the second significant oil-train incident in three days. (Photo: Reuters/Marcus Constantino)

Get Used to It: DOT Predicts Oil Train Derailments Will Be Commonplace Over Next Two Decades

Dangerous wrecks expected to average 10 a year, putting large numbers of people at risk, according to Department of Transportation projection reported exclusively by the Associated Press.

Sarah Lazare

According to federal authorities' own predictions, potentially deadly oil train accidents are likely to be commonplace in the United States over the next two decades, with derailments expected to occur an average of 10 times a year, costing billions of dollars in damage, and putting a large number of lives at risk.

The grim projection was revealed exclusively by the Associated Press, which cites a previously unreported analysis by the Department of Transportation from last July.

The disclosure comes in the wake of two explosive crude-by-rail disasters in the U.S. and Canada this month alone, including wrecks and explosions in West Virginia and Ontario.

"Based on past accident trends, anticipated shipping volumes and known ethanol and crude rail routes, the analysis predicted about 15 derailments in 2015, declining to about five a year by 2034," AP journalists Matthew Brown and Josh Funk write.

Any one of the 207 expected derailments, if it occurs near a population center, could kill 200 people and cause $6 billion in damage, according to the reporting. DOT researchers say that they expect crashes to cause at least $4.5 billion in damages over the next twenty years.

Driven by the shale oil boom in Canada and the U.S., transport of oil by train is drastically increasing, and experts say millions of people are in danger of derailments and explosions. According to a study published last week by the Center for Biological Diversity, "an estimated 25 million Americans live within the one-mile evacuation zone that DOT recommends in the event of an oil train derailment." Oil trains, further, cut through 34 national wildlife refuges and fall within a quarter mile of 3,600 miles of rivers and streams, the CBD report notes.

Last week's Fayette County, West Virgina fiery derailment, which displaced at least 2,400 people, prompted renewed calls for safety regulations and reforms. The disaster raised alarm especially because the tank cars on the train were CPC 1232 models, which were supposed be a more modern and resilient model, yet did not prevent the explosion.

Many insist that, over the long term, society must move away from fossil fuel extraction and the health and environmental hazards it poses—from climate change to transport by rail and pipeline.

"The reality is that there’s no way to safely transport highly volatile crude from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota or heavy crudes from the Alberta tar sands," said Jared Margolis of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Instead these fossil fuels should be left in the ground, both for our safety now and to avoid the impending climate catastrophe."


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