Increasing Use Of Oil Trains Inspires Backlash From States

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It's been a year since a train carrying crude oil exploded near a town in Quebec, killing nearly 50. The accident drew attention to the use of railroads to ship crude from North Dakota to the coasts.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers. A year ago today, a train carrying crude oil exploded near a small town in Quebec. The fire from the explosion engulfed the downtown area and killed nearly 50 people. The accident drew more attention to the fact that railroads are fast becoming the preferred way to ship crude oil from booming North Dakota to major markets on the coast. We'll hear next about how some states and neighborhoods where these oil tanker trains pass through are saying they don't want them in their backyards. NPR's Kirk Siegler starts in the refinery town of Richmond, California, northeast of San Francisco.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In the shadow of Richmond's 3,000-acre Chevron refinery and a sprawling rail yard next door is the Atchison Village housing development. These small row homes were originally built for the British and American shipbuilders who moved here during World War II. Today, the village is home to mostly immigrant families and seniors.

You're 85. Is that right?

BARBARA STAUSS: Four.

SIEGLER: Oh, 84.

STAUSS: I look older because I've had a hard life.

SIEGLER: Barbara Stauss (ph) is funny with a quick wit. She could almost be own neighborhood watch volunteer, sitting at her kitchen table, peering out the window at the rail yard a few hundred feet away.

STAUSS: I've lived here since September of 1990. And you get used to how the trains are. And this is something different - something really different. And I'm frightened most of the time.

SIEGLER: The something different is the 100-car oil tanker train that now rolls into the yard next door once a day. The trains carry highly flammable crude oil from North Dakota. People here are especially on edge because two years ago, they had to shelter in place during an explosion and massive fire at the nearby refinery. Stauss is especially upset because she says there was no public warning about the new trains.

STAUSS: I live here. I can't afford to live anywhere else. Many of my neighbors are in the same boat, you know - and to have us, all of a sudden, endangered like this is outrageous.

SIEGLER: Civic leaders and fire marshals across the bay area have voiced similar concerns lately, especially after recent fiery crashes of crude oil trains from Alabama to Virginia. City councils here have passed symbolic resolutions against the trains traveling through their densely populated neighborhoods. And then there are the environmental groups. They've sued air-quality regulators. They're seeking an injunction that would stop the oil trains from coming into Richmond altogether. The groups want more studies on pollution and safety first. In this growing opposition to crude by rail isn't unique to California.

SHERIFF LOUIS FALCO: OK. My name is Louis Falco. I am the sheriff of a Rockland County, New York.

SIEGLER: Two to three 100-car trains pass through Falco's County every day. A few months back, one of them collided with a tractor-trailer on tracks just a hundred yards from the county's main water supply and the Hudson River. It turned out that the railcars were empty.

FALCO: Thank God there was nothing on the train. Had the train derailment been full of the crude oil, it would've filled up our reservoir there and the water supply, thereby, knocking out, not only two counties, but affecting two states.

SIEGLER: Falco says it was a wake-up call. He now sends his deputies out with radar guns to make sure the trains aren't traveling too fast. He's also been pleading with the rail companies to share a live video feed with local authorities so first responders know what's coming and when.

FALCO: We can't control the what-ifs. But when these things happen, we've got to be prepared to deal with them on time, not having to do research after the fact.

SIEGLER: For its part, the rail industry says it's made a lot of progress improving safety protocols, like speed controlled and track upgrades. More detailed information is being shared with local authorities and railroaded and oil industry groups have also called for new, tougher standards on the oil tanker cars themselves.

TUPPER HULL: There's no question that communities and elected officials have questions. They want confidence that this is a safe method to transport a vital energy source.

SIEGLER: Tupper Hull is with the Western States Petroleum Association. His group supports a new California law that will impose a fee on every barrel of crude oil coming into the state by rail with the proceeds going to first responders. But count on the industry to fight efforts to shut down the movement of the oil itself. Hull says crude by rail is here to stay.

HULL: Statistically and empirically, rail transport is very safe. The amount of crude oil that's moving on the rails is tiny compared to their overall cargo loads.

SIEGLER: Tiny but growing fast. Take California, the nation's largest oil consumer. Last year, one percent of all of the oil imported here came in by rail, but by 2016, it's expected to be more like 25 percent. Kirk Seigler, NPR News.

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