Citing Dangers to Disadvantaged People, Advocates Push to Stop Transporting Oil by Train

Low-income and minority communities are more likely to be in the blast zones for exploding oil trains, according to a new report.

(Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Jul 4, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Ali Swenson is an editorial intern at TakePart. She is editor-in-chief of Loyola Marymount University’s news outlet, the Los Angeles Loyolan, and has worked in nonprofit media.

When researchers talk about deadly dangers low-income and minority Californians may face in their neighborhoods, they often refer to gang violence, or even lack of access to fresh food and health care. A lesser-known danger lies in the frequent derailments and explosions of trains transporting crude oil, new research finds.

Low-income, nonwhite, and non-English-speaking communities face a disproportionately high risk of these devastating explosions, according to a report published this week by environmental advocacy groups ForestEthics and Communities for a Better Environment.

Oil transportation by rail has increased 40-fold since 2008 in the U.S., with a drilling boom in Canada and North Dakota leading to record crude oil production in 2014. With more oil trains on the rails, accidents have also become common—in the first five months of 2015 alone, five oil trains exploded in the U.S. and Canada. While none of this year’s accidents have been fatal, past derailments have been catastrophic—a 2013 explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47.

Researchers overlaid U.S. census data onto a map of blast zones—communities near rail lines that would be in danger if a train carrying crude oil derailed or exploded on the tracks. Then, looking at the 10 biggest cities in California alongside oil train routes, they used the census data to compare communities inside and outside the blast zones. Cities studied included Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento, and Oakland.

“What we found is that census blocks inside the blast zone are 33 percent more likely to be nonwhite, low-income, or non-English-speaking as a first language,” said Eddie Scher, communications director for ForestEthics.

This disparity has a name—“environmental racism”—and it’s been identified as a problem beyond the oil train blast zone. Throughout history, minority and low-income communities have been placed in degraded environments, vulnerable to toxic waste and other hazards, at a higher rate than more wealthy communities. Rules and regulations about oil trains need to consider the minority communities living in blast zones, said Scher, “for justice reasons, for equity reasons, but also because it’s required by law.”

Both the U.S. government and the state of California have passed legislation protecting “environmental justice,” or the fair treatment of all people, regardless of race, when it comes to any new environmental laws or policies. A 1994 executive order from President Bill Clinton required federal programs to consider the higher health and environmental risks faced by minority and low-income populations. A California environmental justice code has a similar ask.

The Association of American Railroads defends the use of trains to transport oil, and spokesman Ed Greenberg says it continues to prioritize improving safety regulations.

“Federal safety statistics show rail safety has improved dramatically over the last several decades, with 99.995 percent of cars containing crude oil arriving safely,” he said. “That said, the freight rail industry recognizes continuous safety improvements are needed, with zero incidents being our goal.”

Advocates say our laws and the efforts of industry just aren’t enough.

“This is the sad fact of the United States, that low-income nonwhite folks that we’re defining as environmental justice communities are more likely to live in environmentally dangerous places,” said Scher. “And unfortunately, oil trains contribute to that disparate threat. Both the Obama administration and the California state government haven’t looked at environmental racism from oil trains.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently introduced new safety rules for oil by rail transport, but this isn’t enough, according to Scher, because they don’t acknowledge environmental racism when considering train routes or safety upgrades.

While a first step is to take the disparate impact of the trains into account, the larger goal, for Scher, is to eliminate the risk by prohibiting oil trains altogether. ForestEthics and its environmental partners will host their second annual Stop Oil Train Week in July, holding more than 100 events in the U.S. and Canada demanding an immediate ban on oil trains.