Tracking Toxic Trains in California and Boosting Federal Safeguards

  • Approximately 700,00 barrels of crude oil leave the Bakken by rail each day.

  • Bakken oil is especially volatile, putting communities near railroads at risk of explosions from derailed trains.

  • California passed legislation that would improve communication between rail companies and state emergency response officials.

  • Federal regulations are needed to enforce regulations that would further protect communities, such as improved tank car standards and speed limits.

The oil boom in North Dakota's Bakken region has led to more crude oil being transported by train throughout the country and, consequently, a rise in oil train accidents. On Aug. 29, California passed new legislation that would help emergency response officials prepare for potential disasters. The legislation would require rail companies to submit emergency response plans and inform officials about the movement of crude oil and other hazardous materials through the state. The bill dovetails with related federal efforts to boost rail safety.

Each day, around 700,000 barrels of crude oil leave the Bakken region by rail, heading for refineries across the U.S. and Canada. Bakken oil is especially volatile, and a train crash or derailment can cause an explosion. The most devastating example occurred last year in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where an oil train derailed downtown, killed 47 residents, and severely damaged much of the city. Communities along train routes have limited authority to regulate and communicate with rail companies that are moving oil through their towns.

In response to recent train accidents, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) released an emergency order last May requiring railroad companies to notify state emergency response officials when they plan to move oil train cars through a state. This applies only to trains carrying Bakken crude in excess of 1 million gallons (approximately 35 train cars).

California’s legislation, if signed into law, would provide broader protections. The bill would apply to trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of any hazardous material (as defined by the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury), so it would include not only Bakken crude but other explosive and flammable substances. Moreover, it requires rail companies to create a “response management communications center” that state officials can contact in the event of an accident. This would enable emergency response officials to quickly gather information critical to disaster response.   

California’s law passed the State Assembly by a vote of 61-1, indicating that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are committed to protecting communities from oil train accidents. The law now goes to Governor Jerry Brown for approval.

Despite these advances, the state is limited in what it can do to regulate rail companies. States cannot, for instance, impose speed limits or prevent trains from passing through large urban areas. Such protections must come from federal standards set by the DOT, and the agency has been taking some action to tighten requirements and improve safety.

Last month, DOT proposed two new rules for crude rail transportation. One focuses on strengthening safety standards, such as setting speed limits and improving tank car safety. The other would require companies to create emergency response plans for derailments.

In addition, local community members – not just emergency response officials – need access to emergency response information. DOT's rules should include provisions for making this information publicly available so residents can better prepare for oil train disasters and be actively involved in developing and improving plans.

The Center for Effective Government advised DOT to finalize and implement these rules as soon as possible to prevent future disasters. You can also weigh in by submitting a comment on DOT's proposed rules by Sept. 30.

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