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Another Voice: Railroad routing of ‘bomb trains’ puts the public at risk

By Fred Millar

A Buffalo News editorial on July 14 raised persistent safety concerns regarding the feared “bomb trains” increasingly traversing New York State rail “corridor communities” to East Coast refineries and export terminals.

High hazard flammable trains are the extra-long unit trains of crude oil and ethanol, prone to derailment. July 6 was the fifth anniversary of the 2013 Lac-Megantic crude oil train disaster in which 47 died within minutes. Survivors reported giant “rivers of fire” devastated their downtown.

Subsequent federal rail safety developments have not made significant progress in disaster prevention. Overall, the Trump administration steams ahead to gut or delay the most important recent federal rail safety regulations: effective braking systems and computerized collision-prevention technology.

The railroad-weakened 2015 federal HHFT regulations did not impact the most significant disaster risk factors: the volatility of the crude oil cargo, the routing of the trains through major cities and the still-growing unregulated lengths of HHFT unit trains.

Federal regulators bluntly noted that in a high-speed derailment, the new design DOT-117 cars will release cargo. Predictably, we saw 14 of the newest DOT-117R design cars leak an estimated 230,000 gallons of crude in the recent Doon, Iowa, derailment. Railroads and shippers, missing the federal 2018 deadlines mandating new or retrofitted cars, won long extensions. Ethanol shippers can use their defective old DOT-111 rail car models until 2023.

The North American fire service knows well that no community can be “prepared” for a serious crude oil train disaster. Constrained by federally preemptive rail safety laws, New York and other states can provide only a few Band-Aids: inspections and foam.

Several of the many bomb train derailments have occurred on tracks that had recently been inspected and judged “safe.” Obviously, rail tracks with serious internal cracks are in reality detected only by actual derailments – too late.

States’ pre-positionings of firefighting foam stocks are another disingenuous pretense of being “prepared.” Foam can only be used after multiple rail car fireball events have died down to manageable burning puddles. In serious derailments, the brave but not suicidal firefighters, as they are trained, sensibly mount only “defensive” firefighting, holding back nowhere near the raging fireballs – thankfully, so far mainly in rural areas. Experienced fire chiefs advise a focus on prevention.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo could at least mount the first corridor state public education effort to challenge the railroad industry’s secret transcontinental routing of HHFTs and of toxic gases such as chlorine and ammonia. Each railroad makes hazmat routing decisions secretly and can weight 27 federal safety and cost factors as they wish, under the 2007 astonishingly railroad-friendly law. Resource-strapped federal “regulators” reported they have never overturned a railroad-selected route. New Yorkers should demand that railroads prove publicly their secret routes are the “safest and most secure.”

Fred Millar is an independent consultant on chemical facility and transportation safety and security based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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