Oil Trains Put 1 Million California Schoolchildren in Danger Zone

A study finds that an additional 226,000 kids attend school within a mile of proposed routes for trains carrying explosive oil.
Fire from an oil train explosion in Lac Mégantic, Canada, on July 6, 2013. (Photo: Bernard Theberge/Reuters)
Sep 9, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

As the academic year begins, a new study shows that more than 1 million children in California attend school within a mile of trains carrying oil, while another 226,000 are within a mile of proposed rail routes.

The analysis, conducted by advocacy group the Center for Biological Diversity, tapped data from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Education to map the routes of existing oil trains within one mile of 2,300 schools in California. The study found that half a million children go to school within the half-mile evacuation zone for oil trains.

There have been a spate of oil train derailments in recent years. A crash in 2013 in Quebec killed 47 people, while so far this year derailments have happened in Illinois, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Ontario, Canada.

“We’ve worked with teachers unions and school boards concerned about this project and have instigated action with their school boards,” said Valerie Love, a Center for Biological Diversity campaigner. “Teachers are state-mandated disaster workers in case of an emergency, so they’d be responsible for these children in case of a derailment, fire, or emergency.”

The campaign is coordinating a grassroots movement in San Luis Obispo County, California, where oil company Phillips 66 is seeking approval for five new trains to deliver oil to a local refinery. That would put 226,000 children within one mile of the route taken by what opponents call “bomb trains.”

RELATED: The High Cost of Oil Trains: Hundreds of Accidents, Hundreds Dead, and $4 Billion in Damages

The Center for Biological Diversity has worked with teachers unions that are protesting the new oil trains.

“Those trains could come from the north, from Sacramento through San Francisco, or from the south from Los Angeles, and they could change their routes at any time, depending on where they’re sourcing their oil at any given moment,” Love said.

“If it’s politically feasible, ideally we would have a moratorium on all oil trains,” she added. “But in the meantime, we should make sure new projects are rejected on a local level so we don’t increase the risk by allowing more oil trains through neighborhoods and schools.”

In Northern California, the oil trains transport volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota.

Most derailments in Canada have involved trains carrying carbon-intensive tar sands oil.

“The most toxic, dirty, and carbon-intensive fuels should not get to market,” Love said. “Even if an accident does not happen, the air pollution generated because the trains are so long and heavy, with each train needing three engines, would be equal to 4,500 diesel cars.”