Trains Bring Oil Spills, and Worries Over Safety

  • A train carrying Canadian crude oil derailted in Vandergrift, Pa. Feb. 13, 2014. Photo: Reid Frazier

February 21, 2014


From his living room in North Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, Rob Smeltzer likes to watch the trains roll by across the Kiskiminetas River. Lately, he’s seen a change in the type of cars that roll by his window.

“There seem to be more tankers today than what there was, three or four years ago,” Smeltzer says.

One morning last week, he was in his living room when he heard a loud noise. He knew immediately what it was. He says it sounded like the “crunching of steel.”

“Banging, clanging, rattling. [It sounded like] the trucks leaving the tracks.”

The sounds came from a Norfolk Southern train carrying oil and liquefied natural gas leaving the tracks. About 4,000 gallons of crude oil spilled in the parking lot of an industrial building near the train tracks. Federal rail investigators are still investigating.

It was the latest in a series of derailments involving the shipment of crude oil on trains. According to a report from McClatchy newspapers, more oil was spilled in rail accidents in 2013 than the previous 37 years combined,

Why? Experts say, it’s sheer numbers.

“We have a lot more oil trains running around,” said Allan Zarembski, director of the railroad safety and engineering program at the University of Delaware.

Crude shipments by rail have jumped over 4,000 percent since 2008, according to data from the American Association of Railways. That’s because there simply aren’t enough pipelines to transport oil from drilling hotspots like North Dakota and Alberta, Canada.

Zarembski says the rate of rail accidents in the U.S. is actually declining.

“The safety record for trains is still extremely good. Is it risk free? No, it’s not.”


Though the oil spilled in the derailment in Vandergrift, about 25 miles east of Pittsburgh, came from Canada, much of the oil carried on the rails these days is fracked out of the ground in North Dakota’s Bakken formation.

Regulators now suspect that this North Dakota crude oil is more explosive than other kinds of oil. They say it could be that Bakken oil is imbued with higher levels of natural gas than crude from other formations, or because the fracking fluids used to excavate the oil from rock make it into the oil and make the resulting mixture more volatile. Whatever the reason, this makes rail accidents involving North Dakota oil more dangerous.

Bakken crude was involved in a catastrophic derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec last summer. In that accident, an unattended oil train carrying North Dakota crude went off the tracks and exploded in the resort town, killing 47 people and burning dozens of buildings.


This and other accidents have led to a focus on the tank cars used to transport oil.

“There are a lot of tank cars out there today, moving flammable liquids that need to be either retrofitted, or phased out,” says Patti Reilly of the American Association of Railroads.

Reilly says the industry is voluntarily phasing out older tankers in favor of stronger, more puncture proof rail cars. But of the 92,000 tanker cars currently transporting oil and other flammable liquids, only 18,000 are made to the newer, more crashworthy specifications.

Norfolk Southern wouldn’t specify whether the cars that spilled oil in Vandergrift were of this newer variety.

“[B]ecause of an ongoing investigation into the derailment, it would not be appropriate for [Norfolk Southern] to comment on whether those tank cars met current industry standards,” spokesman David Pidgeon said in an email.

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club want faster action on upgrading rail safety. The group wants the U.S. Department of Transportation to immediately take older rail cars off the tracks, said Devorah Ancel, a Sierra Club attorney. The group also wants stronger right-to-know laws to alert the public about what types of hazardous cargo are being shipped through their communities.

The government may be starting to address these concerns. The Associated Press reported that it had obtained an agreement between the railroads and the Department of Transportation that would beef up rail safety for oil trains. The agreement would increase inspections of rail lines, slow down oil trains through cities, and increase emergency response planning along routes. 

Some have made calls to re-route trains carrying oil away from cities. But Zarembski, of the University of Delaware, says, keeping trains completely out of cities isn’t all that likely.

“Sometimes you’re dealing with refineries that are located at or near the population centers themselves.”

Some analysts suggest these oil train accidents could push the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline to bring crude in from Canada’s tar sands. But as rail advocates point out, pipelines can also have spills.