Four rail-borne risks moving through American communities
Communities alongside rail lines had two more close calls this week as freight trains carrying hazardous materials derailed in Houston and Detroit.
For the communities where this week’s wrecks took place, the damage was less severe than symbolic: a reminder of the importance of rail-borne hazardous materials to every part of the economy just after the crash in East Palestine, Ohio.
Houston is the capital of the nation’s petroleum industry, part of a sprawling crescent of refineries, crackers, factories and liquefaction plants stretching from Baytown, Texas, to the Mississippi River industrial corridor in Louisiana — sometimes called Cancer Alley.
And Detroit — the once-and-future heartland of American automotive manufacturing — is now a rising hub of electric vehicle and battery manufacturing, a suite of high technologies whose exotic chemistries depend on hazardous materials.
For example, liquid chlorine — carried in the train that derailed in Detroit — is an essential component in wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicle batteries, according to the Chlorine Institute.
The crashes in both regions — one a rising hub of clean energy, the other of fossil fuels — underscored the risk posed by hazardous materials moving through the nation’s towns and cities.
That is a risk that is often invisible until, suddenly, it explodes.
Since 2015, the U.S. rail system has been responsible for 106 derailments in which hazardous materials were released, according to Federal Railway Administration data analyzed by The Hill.
In 2022 alone, the agency tracked ten derailments containing hazardous materials, which ranged from a pair of propane-carrying cars overturned in Maine to a 44-car derailment in Iowa that sent 65,000 gallons of asphalt into an Iowa creek.
Last year also saw a spill of 19,300 gallons of hydrochloric acid from a derailment in Oklahoma and 20,000 gallons of nervous system-distorting methyl methacrylate monomer — a key ingredient in fake nails.
In East Palestine, approximately 36 cars derailed — 11 of which carried hazardous materials.
If that wreck had happened in 2022, it would have been in 8th place in terms of cars destroyed.
Still, these trains — especially in emergency situations — pose unseen risks.
“Local communities don’t know what’s in these trains,” said Kristen Boyle, an attorney with public interest law firm Earthjustice. “Local communities can’t find out. They can’t stop the trains from going through, and they have been unable to get safety regulations.”
“And then they’re the ones left with, you know, the explosion,” she added.
Representatives from the Department of Transportation told The Hill that the agency doesn’t monitor the real-time movement of hazardous materials across the country. Trains carried about a million tons per day by rail in 2017, the last year the government released numbers.
The nation’s rail trade groups have been quick to point out that this system is very safe on a train-by-train basis. According to the Associated of American Railroads (AAR), trains are ten times as safe per mile as trucks, and 99.9 percent of hazmat-containing rail shipments make it to their destination without incident.
But trains also carry far more cargo than trucks — making the risks of a spill far more severe. And the sheer volume of U.S. rail travel means that even a failure rate of 0.1 percent can lead to a lot of damage.
For example, about 20,000 rail shipments of vinyl chloride — the highly explosive and carcinogenic chemical that Norfolk Southern contractors poured in a ditch and burned off in East Palestine — cross the country each year, according to the American Chemical Society.
That 99.5 percent success rate would still allow for 100 possible releases of a hazardous chemical — such as crude oil, ethanol, vinyl chloride or methane.
One recent boom in hazardous material transport by rail dates back to the coincidence of two historic phenomena in the 2010s that drove a boom in crude oil transports by rail.
The first was the boom in “fracked” oil and gas, and second, the discovery of shale plays far from traditional pipeline complexes.
These two developments created a radical shift in the geography of the U.S. oil industry — one that created a need for new routes to connect new wells to new or existing coastal export terminals.
And when the proposed export pipelines projects — such as Keystone XL, the Dakota Access Pipeline and Atlantic Coast Pipeline — foundered against dedicated local opposition in rural farm counties, the booming oil and gas industry turned to rail.
In March of 2010, just 1.2 million barrels of oil were moved by train — a quantity that peaked at 35 million in October of 2014, mostly out of the new fracking fields in the Midwest, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA).
The rail transport boom didn’t last — in part because investors slammed the brakes on an oil industry that it saw as irresponsibly overproducing.
But even as transport volumes fell, by November 2022 they still remained six times higher than where they had been in 2021. That month, 7.27 million barrels crossed the U.S. by train.
That number still represented about 90,000 carloads of crude oil per day — each hauling about 13,500 gallons, according to AAR.
And if a proposed merger between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern is approved, it will create direct routes for exporting Canadian tar sands through the United States, Houston Public Media found.
That would be the same product that exploded in 2013 in the small Quebec town of Lac Megantic, killing 47.
Environmental and civil society groups are calling on the Biden administration to restore oil train safety rules weakened by Trump, as The Hill previously reported.
In December, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules intended to spur the production of enough biofuels and e-fuels, such as ethanol, to replace up to 180,000 barrels of oil per year.
About 95 percent of the ethanol moved in the U.S. in the first half of 2022 moved by rail — and rail exports of both ethanol and biofuels are rising, according EIA.
Biodiesel shipments by rail have also increased fivefold since 2010.
Rail biodiesel shipments were just 2.6 million barrels per year — but had soared to 13 million by 2019. Ethanol, meanwhile, has increased from 208 million barrels per year in 2010 to 237 million in 2022.
As with everything else, a higher volume of transport means a higher volume of spills.
In 2017, an ethanol train derailed and caught fire in northwestern Iowa after a bridge collapsed beneath it. In 2019 authorities in Utah blew up 11 biodiesel and propane cars derailed in a Union Pacific wreck.
The train that crashed in East Palestine carried vinyl chloride, a key ingredient used to make plastic. It is the kind of petroleum-based chemical that the fossil fuel industry is betting on in a greening world, CNBC reported.
Plastic use is projected to double in wealthy countries by 2060 — and most of those plastics will be “primary” plastics, or single-use, non-recycled ones, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The continued dominance of single-use plastics means increased risk from toxic chemicals at both ends of the supply chain. Under this production scenario, the OECD found that plastic waste discharged into the environment would triple, with unknown consequences to public health and the environment.
But it also means a boom in the production and transport of plastic precursors — the volatile ingredients used to make them — will also have to increase.
For example, according to one industry report, vinyl chloride production is expected to grow 6 percent annually over the next five years.
That puts local communities on the hook for safety decisions made in the faraway boardrooms of the Class I Freight railroads. In the case of East Palestine, those decisions represented a twofold mistake by Norfolk Southern, environmental attorney Frank Petosa told the Hill.
First, Petosa pointed to the railroad’s “failure” to maintain the train’s wheels — causing the derailment and the subsequent fire.
But that mistake was compounded by a more serious one: the lack of proper safety release valves in the cars carrying vinyl chloride so that pressure could not be let out to avoid an explosion once the train — which was not considered highly flammable — caught fire.
Then the railroad capped this off with a final error, Petosa said. With no way to safely relieve pressure as the cars burned, Petosa noted, “they chose a solution that made everything worse. They chose to just, you know, poke holes in the tanks, release them into a burn pit and create an environmental disaster.”
The expansion of plastics production goes alongside another boom in fossil fuels — the increase in the transport of methane, the explosive chemical commonly known as natural gas.
Since the Obama administration, the fossil fuel industry has characterized the nation’s gas industry as an energy weapon against Russia. The industry is in the midst of a historic buildout.
The main driver in this growth is a flood of new terminals — many of which will be serviced by rail. The Federal Energy and Regulatory Commission has approved 16 new LNG export terminals.
The LNG industry will help drive an estimated increase in U.S. consumption of petroleum will grow for the next 25 years — a growth that can be primarily accounted for by the rise in LNG exports, according to the EIA.
By 2050, the agency predicted that the U.S. would be producing 25 percent more gas than it consumed — most of it coming from new shale gas developments in corners of the United States, like the Bakken Shale of North Dakota.
Many of the new wave of natural gas terminals — built on the Gulf Coast, where shelter-in-place orders from chemical spills are a regular occurrence — will not need rail connections.
That is because they are connected to oil and gas wells by dense pipeline networks laid over the past century of oil and chemical production.
But others will be in areas where fossil fuels are a relative novelty — and where the only way to get volatile gasses in and out is by truck or trail.
For example, New Fortress Energy’s Miami LNG plant could process about 740,00 gallons of LNG per day — which would be supplied by trucks and trains moving through a densely populated city, a report from Food and Water Watch found.
Then there is the proposed LNG export terminal in Gibbstown, New Jersey — which a dozen New Jersey and Pennsylvania towns are fighting largely because of the fear that LNG-bearing cars would become “bomb trains” in a derailment.
LNG is so energy-dense that a single train carrying 22 cars of the substance contains approximately the same explosive energy as the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, according to a 2020 comment by Earthjustice.
In a worst-case scenario — in which LNG spreading unchecked in a pool rapidly turns to explosive vapor, triggering a fireball — flames would put people and structures at risk as far as 1.5 miles from the leak, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences.
The NAS also found that bystanders as far as .4 miles from the spreading pool of flaming LNG — or a quarter mile from that fireball — could get s and bystanders could get second-degree burns at nearly half a mile away, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences.
Like the oil train brakes mentioned above, the LNG-by-rail issue is another regulatory whipsaw between the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations.
In 2020, the Trump Administration permitted the shipment of refrigerated methane — also known as liquefied natural gas, or LNG — via rail without special safety precautions.
The administration made this decision over the protests of both its own National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
The NTSB found that LNG shipments would likely start slowly and ramp up over time. But “the risks of catastrophic LNG releases in accidents is too great not to have operational controls in place before large blocks of tank cars and unit trains proliferate,” the agency found.
Under a policy called “energy dominance,” the Trump administration approved LNG-by-rail anyway, without the restriction that the NTSB had requested.
In November 2021, PHMSA suspended the Trump rule, but it has yet to promulgate a new rule or officially repeal the old one.
Any potential federal rule would be vulnerable in the event of a Republican presidential victory in 2024.
Even if it does, Boyle of Earthjustice noted, transport of uncompressed gas — which is still flammable, if less dramatically so — is still legal.
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