This project is part of a joint investigation by InsideClimate News, The Weather Channel and The Investigative Fund.
U.S. regulators knew they had to act fast. A train hauling 2 million gallons of crude oil from North Dakota had exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. Now they had to assure Americans a similar disaster wouldn’t happen south of the border, where the U.S. oil boom is sending highly volatile crude oil every day over aging, often defective rails in vulnerable railcars.
On the surface, the response from Washington following the July, 6, 2013 explosion seemed promising. Over the next several months, the U.S. Department of Transportation, issued two emergency orders, two safety alerts and a safety advisory. It began drafting sweeping new oil train regulations to safeguard the sudden surge of oil being shipped on U.S. rails. The railroad industry heeded the call, too, agreeing to slow down trains, increase safety inspections and reroute oil trains away from populous areas.
But almost a year and a half later—and after three railcar explosions in the United States—those headline-grabbing measures have turned out to be less than they appeared. Idling oil trains are still left unattended in highly populated areas. The effort to draft new safety regulations has been bogged down in disputes between the railroads and the oil industry over who will bear the brunt of the costs. The oil industry is balking at some of the tanker upgrades, and the railroads are lobbying against further speed restrictions.
And rerouting trains away from big cities and small towns? That, too, has been of limited value, because refineries, ports and other offloading facilities tend to be in big cities.
InsideClimate News, The Weather Channel, and The Investigative Fund have monitored the regulatory response to oil train explosions this year, focusing on whether the agency that oversees the railroads—the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)—is able to ensure that the nation’s aging railroad infrastructure can safely handle its latest task: serving as a massive, rickety network of pipelines on wheels.
This article is part of a project supported by the Alicia Patterson Foundation, the George Polk Award program at Long Island University, the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Fund for Environmental Journalism. It was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.