Jean Campagna was looking forward to beginning a vacation two years ago, when he went home from his job as an emergency responder with the Quebec environment ministry. But an urgent phone call roused him from bed in the middle of the night, July 6, 2013. In Lac-Mégantic—a small Quebec town a few miles from the Maine border—a train of 74 oil-filled tank-cars had slipped its brakes and raced along the tracks uncontrollably. At 1:30 AM, the train derailed, spilled, caught fire, and set off a series of explosions, killing dozens of people and destroying nearly three and a half square miles of the central part of the town.
When Campagna arrived on the scene hours after the initial crash, the first thing he noticed—apart from the billowing flames, the intense heat, and the storm of acrid smoke filling the sky—was a two-foot storm drain noisily gushing a torrent of oil straight into the Chaudière River. The broken, burning train had disgorged nearly 6 million liters of volatile Bakken crude oil. What didn’t go into the river quickly seeped into the ground and infiltrated the city’s sewer system. In the porous soil, the burning oil rushed in every direction. Buried sewer pipes filled and in some cases simply melted in the intense heat. The ground beneath the center of town was engulfed. Many buildings soon filled, from the foundations up, with pressurized, toxic fumes, more of the acrid smoke, and flames.
In the final accounting, 47 people were killed in the fire; 27 children lost one or both parents; 169 people were made homeless. For many months afterwards, much of the area remained unsafe and uninhabitable. Campagna was one of many emergency responders who worked to control the fire. Over the months that followed, more than 500 workers were required to help with cleanup efforts.
Two years later, the people of Lac-Mégantic still bear deep scars. A public health study conducted recently found that more than half of area residents, including many children, now suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Survivors are four times more likely to drink to excess than before the fire. In court proceedings long after the disaster, a couple of railway officials were judged to bear responsibility for the accident; neither the railway itself nor any oil company was held accountable.
The Lac-Mégantic fire was the worst oil train disaster anyone could remember. But it was neither the first, nor the last, of its kind. Shipping oil and coal by rail is a risky business. Accidents happen, often with woeful consequences for the health, safety and environmental health of communities along the rail lines. In summer, when steel rails flex or swell in the hot sun, accidents may become more frequent.
In fact, this past week was the anniversary of several more fossil fuel derailments. The first few days of July 2012, one year before Lac-Mégantic, saw three major coal train derailments over three successive days. On July 2, 30 cars of a coal train derailed in Mesa, Washington, dumping more than six million pounds of coal and sending what local witnesses called “a haze of black smoke” into the sky. The following day, 43 coal cars wrecked and spilled their cargo in Pendleton, Texas; and on Independence Day that year, a coal train went off the rails in the suburbs of Chicago, destroying a bridge and killing two people trapped underneath.
Oil- and coal-train disasters such as these are a growing source of anxiety for many in the Pacific Northwest, where fossil fuel companies are working hard to increase the amount of coal and oil shipped across the region on its way to coastal ports and refineries.
Community-led efforts to slow or stop the expansion of coal export through our region have chalked up significant victories, batting down four out of six proposals for new export terminals in the last few years. On the other hand, oil-by-rail shipments through the region have increased massively in the last half decade. In 2000, five hundred thousand barrels of oil were shipped by rail to west coast destinations; by 2014, that number had exploded (pardon the pun) to 50 million barrels. Nationwide, oil-by-rail shipments have increased from just over 20 million barrels in 2010 to more than 373 million barrels in 2013.
Washington State has not seen an oil train disaster at the scale of Lac-Mégantic, but is it only a matter of time? Seattle got a proper scare in summer 2014, when three tanker cars of a hundred-car oil train derailed under a bridge just north of downtown. Thankfully, there was no spill, and no fire. In the aftermath of the 2013 Lac-Mégantic incident, railways began deploying tanker cars with new safety features. But the new cars have ruptured in at least four rail accidents this year, including a fiery wreck near the Mississippi River in Galena, Illinois. This spring, the Obama administration issued new safety standards for oil trains, but the revised rules were so weak that a suite of environmental organizations promptly sued to force the government to phase out dangerous tanker cars more quickly.
Lac-Megantic, Quebec has a population of about 6000, similar in size to a number of railside and riverside communities in Washington and Oregon that regularly see coal and oil trains passing through their town centers. A major oil train explosion in a dense urban area like downtown Seattle would cause devastation many orders of magnitude greater; harming hundreds or thousands of people and severely disrupting the regional economy. If a large fire were to ignite in the mile-long, hundred-year-old rail tunnel beneath Seattle’s downtown, fire officials have acknowledged there is little they could do to fight the blaze.
Nevertheless, oil traffic through our region is set to continue expanding. A recently updated Sightline study finds that more than a million barrels of crude oil could soon be shipped through our region every day—in the neighborhood of 100 mile-long oil trains per week.
Any time an oil train accident occurs near where people live, it is likely to exacerbate existing inequalities. In both rural and urban areas, low-income communities and people of color are more likely to live close to rail lines, or within the potential “blast zone” of an accident—and are thus more likely to bear the brunt of economic and health impacts.
For now, our economy remains dependent on fossil fuels for energy use, there’s no doubt about it. That dependency is not a choice for most of us, despite personal choices about how we live or what we drive. But the oil industry works hard to keep us believing that our dependency is a permanent, existential reality, instead of a phase we hope to grow out of. Big oil needs us to accept that their train accidents are a necessary cost of our way of life, along with transcontinental pipelines, oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, tanker wrecks, and drilling in the Arctic sea.
Big oil also needs us to continue prioritizing our need for their product over our aspirations for a stable climate, which is why the industry is deeply invested in lobbying and political influence. The sheer gravity of the oil industry powerfully warps the space in which state and federal governments do their work. Last year alone, oil interests spent upwards of $3 million influencing politicians in Washington State, and another $2 million in Oregon.
This year, the effects of that influence were clearly visible during legislative sessions in both states. In Washington, a broad coalition of business leaders, health advocates, faith leaders and community organizations worked hard in support of a clean fuels standard and policies which would require large polluters to account for the cost of their greenhouse gas emissions. Both were ultimately sidelined due to pressure from oil industry groups. In Oregon, the Legislature passed a bill creating a Clean Fuels Program, despite strenuous objections from petroleum interests. But big oil didn’t give up, and waged a campaign—very nearly successfully—to convince the Legislature to repeal the bill they had just passed.
In the meantime, oil and coal trains continue rolling through our communities, carrying with them dangers to community safety, public health, and climate stability.
With renewable energy alternatives including utility-scale solar and wind on the rise, it has never been easier to see the light at the end of the fossil fuel tunnel. We can, and must, envision an era when we can at last say that we’ve kicked the oil habit. Each time an oil derailment, spill or fire makes the news, it's important to seize the opportunity and ask why we treat such calamities as business-as-usual. It’s important to connect the dots between an Arctic drilling venture and the consequences for our climate and our oceans if we commit ourselves to another generation of global warming pollution.
As KC Golden wrote recently, we don’t need to give up all fossil fuel use tomorrow. But the sooner we can stop digging ourselves into a deeper hole, the better. We owe it to ourselves and everything we love to actively imagine a healthy and safe future for ourselves and our communities. And that means understanding that our oil dependence doesn’t have to be a forever thing… and taking action where we can to power up clean energy.