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Smoke and flames erupt from the scene of a train derailment Thursday, March 5, 2015, near Galena, Ill. A BNSF Railway freight train loaded with crude oil derailed around 1:20 p.m. in a rural area where the Galena River meets the Mississippi, said Jo Daviess County Sheriff's Sgt. Mike Moser.  (Photo: Associated Press)

In Illinois, Flames and Clouds of Smoke Signal Yet Another 'Bomb Train' Disaster

Derailment in Illinois near the Mississippi River affirms predictions that continued addiction to fossil fuels will be accompanied by dangers at every turn

Jon Queally

In yet the latest fiery example of a crude-by-rail disaster, a derailment on Thursday of a train carrying crude oil near the Mississippi River in Galena, Illinois (not far from the Iowa border) saw several cars burst into flames as thick black smoke billowed into the air.

Operated by the rail company BNSF, the company said the train originated in North Dakota and was carrying more than a hundred cars of Bakken crude.

"The only thing more mind-boggling than three such accidents in three weeks is the continued lack of action by the Obama administration to protect us from these dangerous oil trains." —Mollie Matteson, Center for Biological DiversityAccording to Reuters:

Dark smoke was seen for miles around the crash site, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency told local that two of the cars were potentially on fire. Images posted online by Dubuque Scanner showed flames several hundred feet high, while aerial footage showed the wreck spread across two sets of track.

The train with 105 loaded cars - 103 of them carrying crude oil - derailed around 1:20 p.m. CST (1920 GMT), according to a BNSF statement. The incident occurred on what appears to be a major rail line alongside the Mississippi River that handles as many as 50 oil-trains a week, one official said.

"The sky is pretty dark down there, the smoke is pretty black," said Kevin Doyle, whose property borders the tracks. "If you're standing on the tracks you can throw a rock in the water."

The Associated Press added:

Firefighters could only access the derailment site by a bike path, said Galena Assistant Fire Chief Bob Conley. They attempted to fight a small fire at the scene but were unable to stop the flames.

Firefighters had to pull back for safety reasons and were allowing the fire to burn itself out, Conley said. In addition to Galena firefighters, emergency and hazardous material responders from Iowa and Wisconsin were at the scene.

Noting that this is third such derailment in the United States in as many weeks, environmental campaigners voiced immediate concern that government officials have proven ineffective when it comes to curbing the dangers posed by the large increase in crude-by-rail traffic in recent years.

"The only thing more mind-boggling than three such accidents in three weeks is the continued lack of action by the Obama administration to protect us from these dangerous oil trains," declared Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement on Friday morning. "The government has the authority to take immediate action to address this crisis – which puts homes, waters and wildlife at risk – and yet it has sat back and watched."

On Thursday, an exclusive investigative report by Reuters explained how last year, as a string of crude derailments had increased public outcry and concern, the Obama contemplated—but ultimately decided against—tightening federal regulations on the oil-by-rail industry. Instead of having the federal government impose tougher restrictions, Reuters reported, the Obama administration decided to allow state regulators, in this case North Dakota, to set the rules.

According to Matteson, "There are simply no excuses left for the Obama administration. The fact that these trains are still moving on the rails is a national travesty. The next explosive wreck — and there will be more, so long as nothing changes — may take lives, burn up a town or level a city business district, and pollute the drinking water of thousands of people. Enough is enough."

In its response to the latest derailment by a BNSF train carrying crude oil, the public interest group U.S. PIRG on Friday noted that the company spent upwards of $5 million lobbying congressional lawmakers against tougher oversight in 2014.

Just as in a similar derailment that occured in West Virginia last month, the rail cars in Illinois that caught fire were newer-model CPC 1232, touted by the industry as safer than older models still widely used.

According to the BNSF statement, all the tanker cars involved in Thursday's derailment were the "unjacketed CPC-1232 model with half-height head shields."

Last month, citing internal data by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Associated Press revealed predictions by the government agency, given current trends, that train derailments such as this will continue to be commonplace in the years ahead, occurring at an average of 10 times a year, costing billions of dollars in damage, and putting a large number of lives at risk..

Following Thursday's disaster, Mother Jones was among the many news outlets making note of the growing and troubling trend of what have euphemistically become known as "bomb trains":

The image of smoldering oil train cars is now a familiar sight: Incidences of exploding oil trains have been rapidly rising in North America thanks to the fracking boom in North Dakota's Bakken oil fields (Bakken oil is potentially more flammable than normal crude) and the slow transition away from old, unsafe rail cars. Oil-by-rail carloads are up 4000 percent from 2008 in the United States and this is the the third derailment in North America in the last three weeks, including a massive explosion in West Virginia on February 16 that injured one person and spilled oil into the nearby Kanawha River. In fact, a Department of Transportation report predicted trains carrying crude and ethanol would derail an average of 10 times per year in the next two decades. This is bad news for people who live near railways and the ecosystems in which they reside.

In an op-ed for Common Dreams last month, Jared Margolis, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity and the author of a recent report on the crude-by-rail crisis, echoed this point by writing:

The unprecedented increase in U.S. oil train traffic from fewer than 10,000 rail cars per year in 2008 to more than 400,000 in 2014 has spurred virtually no corresponding increase in safety preparedness plans, not only putting towns and cities across America in routine danger, but leaving some of the nation’s most imperiled wildlife and natural areas at increased risk from a catastrophic spill.

Even as the overall number of train accidents in the country has declined in recent years, the number of dangerous oil train derailments has increased — in part because the longer, heavier trains, often carrying more than 1 million gallons of oil, are more difficult to control and stop, according to rail safety accounts included in today’s report.

In reality, Margolis concluded, there is "no way to safely transport the highly volatile crude from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota or the heavy crudes from the Alberta tar sands. Instead these extreme fossil fuels should be left in the ground for our safety and to avoid the impending climate catastrophe."

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