2014 Was a Record Year for Oil Train Spills

An NBC News analysis reports that oil trains in the United States spilled crude oil more frequently in 2014 than they have since 1975 when such records were first collected. These mishaps fall under the FELA railroad accident laws that were established in 1908 under President Harrison, and they entitle railroad workers who are injured to higher compensation than other workers’ compensation laws because their jobs are inherently more dangerous. These spills caused some $5 million in damages and lost over 57,000 gallons of crude oil. They resulted in polluted groundwater in Pennsylvania, a massive fireball in Virginia and a destroyed building in Pennsylvania. By volume, more oil was spilled in 2013. During that year, two major derailments in North Dakota and Alabama lost more than 1.4 million gallons, which exceeded the previous 40 years combined. However, data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) revealed that 2014 had a record number of so-called “unintentional releases” with 141 accidents. That dwarfed the national yearly average of 25 spills between 1975 and 2012. These accidents sent many a railway employee seeking representation from a railroad worker injury lawyer. Most of the accidents in 2014 happened when the trains were thundering down the network of train tracks that wander through residential neighborhoods and near many downtown areas. Among those incidents were three complete derailments and seven accidents that were deemed serious by FELA attorneys since they caused an evacuation, a fire or a spill exceeding 120 gallons. That was five more serious incidents than were recorded in 2013. Larry Mann, who authored the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970, said that there are more severe accidents waiting to occur. He predicted in 1991 that a freight train accident would wipe out a community, and his prediction came true in 2013. He said that without drastic changes, the same thing is likely to occur again. The catastrophe to which Mann referred was the Lac-Mégantic disaster, which happened close to the Maine border in Quebec. In that tragedy, a 72-car oil train detonated and destroyed the majority of the town. Nearly 50 people were killed in the explosion when a train rolled downhill into the city. After the horrific accident, American regulators had several emergency meetings. They announced their intention to implement sweeping new safeguards regulating train speed, tank car design, crew size and the routes taken by oil bearing trains. None of these new rules have been finalized at this point. The Department of Transportation (DOT) did not meet a Congressional deadline of January 15 for implementing the new rules governing tank cars despite decades of punctures, leaks and catastrophic failures. The new rules are still being written by the PHMSA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). When asked about the delay in implementing new statutes, the PHMSA could not explain it. Instead, they chose to defend the safety record of oil-bearing trains. PHMSA spokesperson Susan Lagana said that more crude oil was being delivered throughout the country than ever, and the PHMSA is aggressively setting new standards intended to keep communities safe. She said that in 2013, more than 87,000 tank cars hauled crude oil and only 141 “releases” had been reported. The total amount released in those accidents did not even equal the capacity of two tankers. The FRA did not comment on the situation. Instead, it provided data suggesting that railroads are improving their delivery of hazardous materials. In the period between 2004 and 2014, the frequency of collisions and derailments dropped from 31 to 13, which was a 50 percent decline.