Cars in Illinois oil train derailment deemed 'safer' than others

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A Canadian National freight train is pictured on fire after several cars derailed between the Chicago suburbs of Bartlett and Elgin, Illinois (Reuters / Frank Polich)
The 21 cars in a 105-car-long BNSF Railway train that derailed and split open Thursday in northwest Illinois were considered safer than tanker cars in other recent oil train accidents as they had been retrofitted with protective shields.

The derailed cars burst into flames in a rural area just a few miles from Galena, Illinois, releasing crude oil near the confluence of the Galena and Mississippi Rivers, according to reports. No one was reported injured in the accident, but local officials did announce a voluntary evacuation of an area within 1 mile of the crash based on the presence of a nearby propane tank, according to AP.

The train was carrying crude oil from the Bakken Shale region, an area at the center of controversy during the the current oil and gas boom in North America. Recent oil spills from train derailments, like one that occurred in West Virginia last month, have underscored the risks that come with transporting volatile chemical cocktails in tanker cars that have proven worthy of extra scrutiny.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, DOT-111 tank cars that carry crude and ethanol are not adequately equipped to carry flammable materials, and there is no requirement for the cars to have thermal protection against fire hazards.

The Galena crash, though, involved tank cars known as the 1232, BNSF Railway said, which include improved safety upgrades that industry adopted in recent years, according to AP. Yet, in the past year, 1232 cars have been involved in three accidents before Galena in which cars split open.

For example, the train carrying 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude that derailed in West Virginia last month involved 1232 standard cars.

According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by rail went up from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 in 2014. The boost is mainly due to the boom in the Bakken region, where about 70 percent of crude must be shipped by rail.

Within the last two years, there have been at least 11 major derailments in the US and Canada that involved trains carrying immense amounts of oil, according to a December 2014 report by the US Congressional Research Service.

From 2006 to April 2014, there were 16 high-profile accidents involving “high-hazard” trains carrying crude or ethanol, according to the US National Transportation Safety Board. In all, 281 tank cars have derailed, spilling nearly 5 million gallons of crude or ethanol, all resulting in 48 fatalities, Reuters reported.

The increased dangers have alarmed local officials, with some urging the federal government to take a larger role in regulating rail shipments of oil and gas.

"This is what life will look like going forward unless something is done to enhance safety and improve the structural safety of rail tanker cars," said Aurora, Illinois, mayor Tom Weisner following the Galena derailment.

Weisner pointed out that tank cars that are allegedly safer, such as those that toppled in Galena, have been shown to be unreliable.

"This is not going to get better. It is only going to get worse," Weisner said. "There is going to be more and more of these derailments and closer to home. The greatest fear I have as a mayor of a city of 200,000 people is having two rail lines running through Aurora, one of which may be in the heart of the downtown and having one of those episodes here."

Reuters reported this week that the Obama administration recently decided against heightened safety standards for oil-train shipments, conceding to a North Dakota state law that many believe is too weak to be very effective.

READ MORE: Obama admin balked at improving standards for gas in oil ‘bomb trains’ – report

In addition to train derailments that have felled toxic contaminants, there has been an uptick so far this year in other energy-development disasters, as RT has reported.

In North Dakota, three millions of gallons of saltwater brine, a byproduct of hydraulic fracking, spilled in January from a ruptured pipeline near the Missouri River. A line in West Virginia transporting ethane exploded, and 40,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Yellowstone River from a ruptured pipeline in Montana. A natural gas pipeline exploded in Mississippi, and a second North Dakota incident set loose 20,000 gallons of brine.