Another Oil Train Disaster: Are You Prepared if it Happens in Your Town?

Last week a 60-car crude oil train derailed and caught fire in Western Alabama. To many, the derailment and subsequent conflagration of a 60-car crude oil unit train in rural Alabama may be somewhat of a surprise. After all, Alabama is a long way from North Dakota, the origin of the crude oil transported by rail. However, this is a reminder that this type of incident can occur almost anywhere in the United States and Canada that is connected by North America’s extensive rail network.

The rapid expansion of crude oil shipments by rail in North America is the direct result of more domestic sources of crude oil. U.S. Class I railroads originated 93,312 carloads of crude oil in the third quarter of 2013, up 44.3 percent over the 64,658 carloads originated in the third quarter of 2012. Since U.S. pipeline projects are currently stalled, this trend of transporting crude by rail is expected to continue.

Fortunately no one was injured or killed in this incident. However, despite the rail industry’s robust safety record, there will be a next time, and it could happen in your town. Urban areas across North America are connected by rail and such an incident could prove to be much worse with more people and infrastructure at risk.

It is not just crude oil shipments that are increasing due to the recent boon in the oil excavation business. Despite a recent downturn in production, ethanol shipments continue to be the number one hazardous material shipped by rail in the United States. Moreover, the chemical industry is benefiting from domestic sources of oil and natural gas needed for chemical feedstock in the production of many household chemicals we use every day. Increased chemical production translates to increased chemical shipments, also transported through cities and towns across North America.

It is important that local officials and emergency managers know which and how much of these hazardous materials are being transported through their towns so they can be prepared with the right training and best equipment for first responders. Planning officials with this information will make better decisions locating schools and other public facilities away from chemical facilities and away from transportation corridors on which hazardous materials are transported.