Another Thing for Wolves to Worry About: Trains Carrying Oil Are Exploding

A new report finds dozens of endangered species are at risk from petroleum tanker trains that cross near wildlife refuges.
(Photo: Marcus Constantino/Reuters)
Feb 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Two high-profile derailments this week of tanker trains carrying crude oil, one in Ontario and the other in West Virginia, have highlighted the dangers of transporting fossil fuels by rail through populated areas. Now a new report warns that the largely unregulated practice is also placing endangered wildlife at risk as more trains packed full of petroleum crisscross the continent.

The study, conducted by the environmental group the Center for Biological Diversity, found that existing and planned oil train routes traverse 34 national wildlife refuges. Those rail lines pass by the habitats of at least 57 threatened or endangered species, including the gray wolf, the Canada lynx, the California tiger salamander, the California red-legged frog, the piping plover, the bull trout, and several salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon species.

“Within just a quarter-mile of existing and planned oil-train routes there are 3,600 stream miles and 73,468 square miles of lakes, reservoirs and wetlands,” according to the report.

The country’s recent oil boom may have provided relief at the gas pump, but it has also drastically increased the number of tanker cars in use, from fewer than 10,000 a year in 2008 to more than 400,000 in 2014, according to the study.

More oil trains mean more oil-train disasters.

“In 2013, more oil spilled from oil trains than over the previous 20 years, and it kept increasing in 2014, when there were more oil spills than any year since they started keeping records in 1975,” said Jared Margolis, the report’s author and an attorney at the center.

Derailments in wildlife habitats could be catastrophic, he added.

“You’d have oiling of animals, you’d have toxic chemicals in the soil and water, and it could also cause what’s called a trophic cascade—the plants and bugs killed off by that has an impact not only on those species but on species that feed and rely on those,” Margolis said. “So you can have a food-chain effect that wipes out entire communities.”

An interactive map shows the most vulnerable population and wildlife areas.

“There’s a reason they’re called bomb trains—they derail because they’re too long and too heavy, and they explode because they’re using tank cars that are not safe,” Margolis said, noting that trains typically carry between 1 million and 3 million gallons of crude.

So what can be done?

Margolis’ group has issued a petition demanding that President Obama and United States Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx impose an immediate moratorium on all oil trains.

The petition includes recommendations from the report, such as new tank designs that prevent rupture at maximum speeds, limiting oil trains to 30 cars, and comprehensive oil-spill plans “to ensure adequate training, personnel and equipment necessary to respond to a worst-case spill scenario.”

The government has been slow to respond, “due to pressure from the industry based on the economy,” Margolis said. “We have to show that this is not something the public is willing to tolerate.”

He said the country must turn to renewable energy because oil-transportation alternatives, such as pipelines and tanker ships, carry their own risks. Since 1986, there have been nearly 8,000 pipeline accidents, causing more than 500 deaths and nearly $7 billion in damage.

A moratorium may sound like an economic crippler, but Margolis said much of the oil transported by train—especially from Canada—is destined for overseas markets.

“We need a moratorium on moving oil around this country by rail until we can figure out a way to do it safely,” he said. “And if we can’t do it safely, we need to stop doing it entirely.”