With the flames from the most recent oil train derailment just extinguished, a spotlight hovers over the risks associated with what some have dubbed "bomb trains."
In the past month alone, there have been four such disasters in the United States and Canada:
- On February 14, a CN Rail freight train carrying crude from the Alberta tar sands derailed near Timmins, Ontario, causing seven of the cars to burst into flames.
- On February 16, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota derailed Mount Carbon, West Virginia, triggering an explosion and fire.
- On March 5, the fiery derailment of a BNSF train carrying crude struck near Galena, Illinois.
- On March 7, a fiery derailment involving a train carrying tar sands crude hit northern Ontario again, this time near Gogama.
Further highlighting the risks is a recent analysis by the Department of Transportation predicting an average of 10 derailments per year.
The incidents—and exponential increase in the transport of oil by rail—have sparked calls for more stringent regulation and safer ways to transport fossil fuels. But environmental voices on both sides of the border say that is a fundamentally flawed way to approach the problem, and that the derailments should serve as a wake-up call for ending our fossil fuel addiction.
Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, stated that the Obama administration has failed to take the necessary action to prevent these trains from harming wildlife and communities.
"The fact that these trains are still moving on the rails is a national travesty," said Matteson. "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."
And the answer is not to use the rail disasters as motivation for more pipelines, said Matt Krogh, ForestEthics extreme oil campaign director. "There is no safe way to transport extreme tar sands or Bakken oil by train or pipeline," he stated.
Henry Henderson, Midwest Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council and former Commissioner of the Environment for the City of Chicago, agrees. He called the "fiery mess in Galena... one more wake up call for Americans" and said that industry's seizing the derailments to call for more pipelines "reflects a cynical, false choice."
"If we are serious about reducing the risk of moving oil through our communities—we need to focus on using a lot less of it," Henderson said.
The Council of Canadians stated that the federal government needs to put a halt of these "bomb trains," noting that even those car models deemed to be safer shown themselves ot be no safeguard to these fiery disasters.
Mark Calzavara, Ontario, Québec and Nunavut organizer for the Canadian organization, said, "It's time to put people's lives ahead of profits, and for the government to stop allowing unsafe trains to travel through our communities, neighborhoods and environment."
David Dayen writes at Salon that such oil train disasters "haven’t ruined a major population center yet only through dumb luck; and we haven’t cracked down on this treacherous practice only because of the enormous power of the industry." And that power, he adds, has allowed the fossil fuel industry to externalize its true costs—like those resulting from damages from oil train derailments.
"Oil appears 'cheaper' than solar or wind, because these costs never come into account. But solar power doesn’t blow up while being carried through a major city on a train. And if we want to seriously talk about what kind of energy we can afford in the future, that has to enter the conversation," Dayen concludes.