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Dangerous Cargo: Emergency Workers Still in the Dark

Natural Resources Defense Council

In just over a year, North America has seen a dozen serious accidents involving trains that derailed while carrying flammable crude oil.  One of those accidents, in Lynchburg, caused a massive fire and oil spill.  In most cases, fire departments didn’t know what they were dealing with, since railroads have kept that information secret, but the federal government is now requiring them to inform states when trains of 35 cars or more, carrying  oil from North Dakota or Montana, are coming through. 

The public, however, is not entitled to know, and fire departments say they’re still in the dark.

Thirty years ago, Fred Millar began his career as a community activist, trying to keep nuclear power plants from send spent fuel to a storage facility out west.

“The nuclear industry thought that they were going to be able to ship high level nuclear waste all throughout the United States, and they were going to ship it out to Yucca Mountain for deep geologic disposal, sort of out of sight, out of mind.  When the maps became clear of the routes that would be going across the country, the public just revolted and said, ‘No, we’re not going to take that!’ The nuclear industry was forced to keep their high level nuclear waste on site in what’s called dry cask storage.”

Now, Millar thinks a similar grass roots movement is needed to prevent the passage of potentially explosive cargoes of crude oil from North Dakota to Yorktown, Virginia – passing through 25 cities and counties.  The railroad -- CSX -- won’t confirm the route publicly or tell residents when to expect trains.  It’s a matter of good security, they say – we don’t want terrorists to target us, but Fred Millar says that’s hogwash.

“These are giant, 90-ton tank cars with placards on the side that tell you what’s in them.   This is like elephants tip toeing through the tulips. Any half educated terrorist can sit by the track sand look at the numbers on the placards and tell you what’s in those cars."

Railroads have agreed to share information with state emergency managers, but they’re not specific about the times or dates trains will come through, and frontline firemen like Michael Mohler, President of the Virginia Professional Firefighters Association, say they’re still in the dark.

"I’m an officer on a shift, and I can tell you that I watch rail cars go through our town every single day, and I have no idea what’s going through there, unless it’s placarded, I can see it and sit down and research it.  They’re not seeing to it that this is done in a comprehensive way so that fire departments all along the track know exactly what’s coming through."

And, he says, too little is known about crude oil and the fracking fluid it may contain.

"What does this product do when it’s being heated?  What does this product do when it’s being released? Those kind of things it’s difficult for us to know until it’s too late to know."

Richmond’s Fire Chief Robert Creecy says amen to that.  

"Twelve months ago it was ethanol, and the unique properties of ethanol as a commodity and how it visits itself on us when we have a problem, and fire departments have a very limited amount of time to put training in front of the responders and actually get them to a level of readiness where we feel comfortable that we can be the Marines on the beach for the public."

Increasingly, firemen and citizens  are asking questions.  Both of Virginia’s Senators – Mark Warner and Tim Kaine – have been pressing for answers, and Congressman Paul Tonko, who represents a district near the port of Albany, New York is demanding new regulations to improve rail safety.  He says his constituents are alarmed by each new report of an oil train accident.

"They’re very frightened that they could be the next victimized community."

Several states have refused to honor railroad requests that information about the routes and amounts of crude passing thru be kept secret from the public.  Virginia’s Department of Emergency Management posted the information it got from CSX to its website.  The U.S. Department of Transportation, meanwhile, has sent a package of proposed regulations to the White House. Those should be announced before year’s end. 

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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