Not Your Mothers Crude Oil

I am a big fan of trains. I have always been. It’s just that now, there are few trains which move people. In Detroit Lakes you can get a passenger train going east or west at 3 AM . Not exactly convenient. One reason is that trains no longer move people: they move oil, gas and coal- over a thousand cars a day through Detroit Lakes. Our town is about the same size as Lac-Megantic, Quebec which suffered from a train derailment disaster on a train carrying fracked Bakken oil.

The disaster illustrates a set of policy, safety and unplanned growth challenges. According to World News NBC “Firefighters said the hot-white blaze left a scene of destruction like nothing they'd ever before encountered.” Bakken Shale Crude is unconventional in many respects. It is apparently more explosive. Why, we don’t know because there is not a full disclosure of contents. The area is now a crime scene and officials denying site access. Whether a result of human error, bad decisions on braking, and, questionable decisions on what we move so seamlessly on the railroad; life has changed for Lac-Megantic.

When Warren Buffett bought Burlington Northern, he did so for good reason. The oil boom of western North Dakota has no way out, nor does, essentially the Alberta Tar Sands. Rail has been the primary mover. Convenient, except we don’t have enough tankers to move this stuff; as a source explains, “They’re using every available car they can get their hands on.” Some of those cars were not set up for what they are carrying.

Grand Forks Herald reported, “The rail tankers involved in the derailment are known as DOT-111 and have a history of puncturing during accidents, the lead Transportation Safety Board investigator told AP. TSB’s Donald Ross said Canada’s TSB has gone on record saying that it would like to see improvements on these tankers, though he acknowledged it’s too early to say whether a different or modified tanker would have avoided this weekend’s tragedy.”

Then there’s the problem of contents. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing (fracking) from protections under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and CERCLA. The Act exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals involved in fracking . According to a 2011 Congressional report, over 600 chemicals are used in this process.

Those chemicals include a host of things (a bit more than what one fracking company refers to as things which you can “find in your household”). Chemicals include methanol, benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene, all known carcinogens . You might find them in your household if you were a meth lab.

Steven Guilbeault, Deputy Director of Montreal environmental group Équiterre commented, “It’s not the oil people are used to… Depending on the type of crude oil, the environmental impacts, safety issues, decontamination issues are very different because of what’s in the oil.” Shale oil, which is retrieved through a controversial process known as fracking, tends to be light oil, according to Keith Stewart, from Greenpeace Canada. Within that designation, there’s a lot of unknown, including the levels of toxic compounds. With a raging fire and undisclosed chemicals, emergency workers would have been unable to begin until it was safe to do so, Stewart said. “Particularly when it’s crude or any petroleum product, there’s a risk of fire and explosions, and when this stuff burns it releases a lot of toxic chemicals, which have a big impact in the short term,” he said.

We are, essentially pretty far out of our league in policy, science , and industry. Expansion exceeds regulations, and our country has been denied a basic right to know about not only what’s going on in our water in the fracked lands, but also what’s going on in the tankers passing through our small towns. Industry has pushed past safety and regulation. I think that if those trains had nuclear waste signs on them, we might take note. Shoving this same stuff into a pipeline is not going to protect us in the long term, because we still don’t know the implications. A bill called the FRAC Act is in Congress, and would provide some regulation to the industry. So far, that bill has gone nowhere, facing industry opposition. That’s a surprise. That aside, we may need some more conductors, reducing fatigue on the long hauls, and prayers for the people of Lac Megantic.
I still long for the days of the Galloping Goose. That was the train to have- a small electric train which ran through the north country to move people, yes people. I like trains that move people too, with wifi , yes wifi on board.

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