What Should be Done about Old Railroad Tank Cars?

  • An oil train rolls through Plattsburgh, New York, May 2015. Photo: Zach Hirsch / North Country Public Radio

September 18, 2015
by Brian Mann | North Country Public Radio

The oil industry and railroads are scrambling to answer a question: what to do with thousands of useless, old tank cars. Many of these tank cars are crusted with oil, sludge and heavy metal, so they're no longer considered safe or efficient to operate. Railroads have found a solution, but environmentalists are raising some concerns. Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio brings us that story.

When you talk to people in the rail industry about oil tank cars, they use words like "severe disruption" and "turmoil." It began two years ago when an American oil train carrying North Dakota crude derailed in Canada, rupturing and sending waves of fire through a Quebec village.

More than 40 people died. So this spring, after months of review, the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled that as many as 100,000 tank cars known as DOT-111s, used for shipping toxic or explosive material, have to be upgraded or scrapped altogether. It's a $2 billion process that was meant to happen over a period of years. But then the oil industry ran headfirst into slumping oil prices.

"What they weren't expecting, of course, is for crude by rail to experience its own collapse as the price of oil plunged," says says David Thomas, contributing editor with the online journal Railway Age.

So now all those tank cars aren't just unsafe, they're also unneeded and unwanted. Companies are racing to take them out of service, which means that miles of old oil trains are winding up parked in places like the north section of the Sandford Lake Rail Line. It's probably 75 feet from the Boreas River, surrounded by forest preserve on both sides. And that has some environmentalists worried.

Continue reading this story at NPR »

Note: This story ran on NPR's Morning Edition on September 14, 2015.