Trains smack of progress, freedom and adventure. It’s said that railroads revolutionized America. The Association of American Railroads (AAR) touts the safety record of the rails: “In 2012, North American railroads safely delivered more than 2.47 million carloads of hazardous materials.” But sometimes trains leak, derail or just plain explode.
Micah Griffin hopped freights for years. He knows the railyard in Eugene and the trains around Oregon like the back of his tattooed hand. But in all the times he was leaping aboard rail cars and riding across the Northwest and beyond, he hadn’t really known just what was in those big tank cars rolling through towns and past lakes and rivers.
It turns out that the state of Oregon doesn’t want Griffin, or anyone else, to know what’s in those cars. Officials say if they tell you what’s in the cars, where they are going and how much hazardous material they carry, it could lead to a terrorist threat.
Under community right-to-know laws we know something about what hazardous chemicals are stored and used in our towns, but those laws don’t extend to trains, and post-9/11 “anti-terrorist” laws say the government, railroads and shippers don’t have to tell people what’s going through their state. Filming trains in Eugene over a three-week period revealed not only crude oil, but also tons of hazardous chemicals rolling through town. The question isn’t whether rail is more or less dangerous than pipelines; the question is whether Oregon should be a conduit for fossil fuel exports and hazardous materials at all.
Not only are there tank cars full of crude oil on the tracks in downtown Eugene and the Whiteaker and rolling past businesses and neighborhoods, there are tanks of liquefied chlorine gas, hydrochloric acid and molten phenol. Three tank cars full of explosive non-odorized propane were among the loads that rolled through the recent packed Whiteaker Block Party.
On Aug. 2, Griffin filmed a tank car of hydrochloric acid with a bag fastened over its top fitting, rolling past Fifth Street Public Market. Top fittings, through which the tank is loaded and unloaded, are one of the primary sources of release for a tank car involved in an accident, according to a 2011 report in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.
Griffin, age 34, is a videographer with PictureEugene, and when Eugene Weekly asked him if he would document the trains going through town and what they carried he used his train-hopping background to help him. Living in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood, he’d heard rumors of people sickened by exposure to chemicals from trains, and riding the rails he’d seen railcars firsthand that carried nuclear materials. But the recent Lac-Mégantic rail disaster in Canada, which killed 47 people when tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the midst of the small town, has brought concerns over what is on the trains going through the small, funky Whit and the rest of Eugene into sharp relief.
The eight proposed and three operating oil terminals in the Northwest are increasing the amount of oil-by-rail through the Columbia Gorge, with estimates as high as 23 trains a day. Oil shipments by rail have risen 443 percent nationwide between 2005 and 2012, according to the AAR. The dangers to Oregon’s climate, environment, humans and wildlife in the event of an accident, start to become clear when the increase in oil trains is combined with the news of the devastating explosion in Lac-Mégantic. Both federally and at the state level, who’s in charge of what’s being carried on trains is convoluted; EW hit some bureaucratic walls when we tried to find out if Lane County is part of the “oil pipeline on rails.”
A public records request to Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) was swiftly denied by an attorney at the Oregon Department of Justice, who cited a post-9/11 security exemption in Oregon law from public records requests “specifically for the transportation of gas, hazardous substances and petroleum products.” Congressman Peter DeFazio, who says he is working to improve rail safety, calls the secrecy “an overreaction, like many overreactions after 9/11.”
DeFazio says, “any half-baked terrorist could figure it out,” pointing to the diamond-shaped placards on railcars that have symbols and words such as “hot” or “poison,” as well as numbers that are a code for what the car is carrying.
Micah Griffin is an experienced freight-hopper and videographer, and he soon documented trains hauling as many as 35 tank cars of crude oil — the placard number for crude is 1267 — on the tracks along Northwest Expressway.
DeFazio and Griffin are on opposite ends of most every spectrum, from politics to lifestyle, but where they agree is on the public’s right to know what’s going through their town and just how safe it is. They agree on the half-baked terrorist thing, too — as Griffin shows video he shot from a train going past Odell Lake, he says. “The trains come hauling ass out of the Cascade mountain line,” and all someone would have to do is hop a freight and detach oil-filled cars. The government and shippers keeping quiet about what is on those trains wouldn’t stop an incident like that, but the silence does keep the public in the dark about what’s in their own backyards.
Griffin says he documented trainloads of oil heading both north and south. Some trains, particularly those traveling at night, had 10 or more tank cars of crude oil, others only three or four. Griffin thinks larger amounts of hazardous materials are moved by rail at night as a cheaper safety measure since fewer people are around, but he points out that the Whiteaker has a lot of people out and about at night. And one of the reasons so many died at Lac-Mégantic is because the nighttime derailment and fire obliterated a music-café full of people.
According to Rich Hoover, spokesman with the state fire marshal’s office, the only way to find out where the oil is going or if it is even coming through your town at all is by stationing someone by the railroad tracks or by asking the rail companies. Hoover and Griffin say not only do the placards indicate what the car carries, if the card is missing or flipped over then the tank is empty.
Hoover says if oil or other substances are stored in town, it’s reported. But if the train cars are on a siding, meaning they are ready to roll but remain stationary for a while, as some tank cars are in west Eugene’s Trainsong Park, that’s not reported. Railroads report annually what they have transported, he says, but ODOT has refused to release that information. If a spill occurs and a hazmat team is deployed, Hoover says they contain the leaked material and stop the leak from continuing, “and that’s their sole role.” Once the spill is contained, owners and operators of facilities or property contaminated by hazardous substances are responsible, under Oregon law, for cleanup.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration does not list Oregon as having any current petroleum refineries. Washington has five and California has 16 operating refineries. According to Brett VandenHeuvel of Columbia Riverkeeper, crude oil is coming from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. He says Canadian tar sands oil is a possibility as well — while U.S. crude must be refined before export through American ports, Canadian oil can be exported as crude. Port of Coos Bay spokesperson Elise Hamner says the port doesn’t export oil, though it’s still controversially pursuing a liquefied natural gas export terminal, which would be accompanied by a natural gas pipeline.
VandenHeuvel worries about those fossil-fuel trains spilling into the Columbia River, affecting water and other resources. “These oil trains are carrying massive volumes of oil,” he says. “And a spill could be devastating to the Columbia River. Imagine a train carrying 10 of those [tank cars] derailing in a salmon nursery.” Oil spills along other waterways that supply drinking water or chemical leaks into groundwater would also be devastating.
When asked about oil-by-rail and other chemicals, Union Pacific, which has the north-south tracks along the I-5 corridor, said, “Railroads do not release information about specific routes or details about particular commodities/shipments because of safety and security concerns.”
Union Pacific spokesperson Aaron Hunt says that the bag Griffin filmed on one train car passing through downtown Eugene is vinyl and “is an additional security measure hydrochloric acid shippers are taking to make sure no one tampers with their cars while in transportation.” Other cars observed carrying hydrochloric acid did not have such bags.
Paul Orum, an independent consultant who recently testified before Congress after the West, Texas, fertilizer explosion on behalf of the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, says that “local emergency responders often do not really have complete information from railroads about what is shipped through and do not have full public knowledge about these hazards.”
He gives the example of chlorine gas, which is a toxic inhalation hazard: “Most communities have very little idea of what passes through on the rails and the potential harm of a fully loaded 90-ton rail car of chlorine, which can have downwind worst-case impacts for 14 to 25 miles.” He adds, “The vulnerability zones are often much larger and far beyond anything that local emergency responders could effectively handle.”
Griffin documented a number of tank cars of chlorine on Lane County railways in the past three weeks. In January 2005, a train in Graniteville, S.C., derailed and a tank car of chlorine was breached, releasing chlorine gas. The train engineer and eight other people died of chlorine gas inhalation, about 500 people went to the hospital with respiratory difficulties and more than 5,000 were evacuated.
Orum says railroads are “common carriers,” required to carry the hazardous materials, but not allowed to adequately factor into the shipping price the cost of liability insurance. He says that while water and wastewater treatment plants have historically been the largest shippers of chlorine, it’s commercial industry that uses chlorine and other dangerous chemicals shipped by rail. He and DeFazio both say that our regulatory system needs to demand that companies use fewer toxic and volatile chemicals.
Videoing the trains in Eugene, Griffin documented chlorine, which is an inhalation hazard; molten phenol which is flammable and toxic; methyl diphenyl diisocyanate, which the EPA says is a skin and inhalation sensitizer and can cause asthma, lung damage and, in severe cases, fatal reactions; explosive non-odorized propane and corrosive hydrochloric acid, in addition to the crude oil.
Industry demands the chemicals. The shippers, or more precisely the investors, own the tank cars, and the railways have to transport them. In addition to using less hazardous chemicals, DeFazio says the tank cars themselves could be made safer. ODOT cited the 9/11 security issues when it refused to answer EW’s questions about what tank cars are being used on Oregon’s railroads, but according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), 69 percent of the tank cars in use are the soda-can shaped DOT 111 cars that exploded in the Lac-Mégantic disaster. NTSB says the steel cars are thin and puncture in accidents. The ends of the cars can tear, and valves and top fittings can break in rollovers.
DeFazio says the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration was “looking at its bellybutton lint” when it comes to DOT 111 cars. Though the issues with the cars have been known since a 1991 study, it wasn’t until recently that the problem was addressed — cars built after October 2011 that ship ethanol and crude oil now have thicker shells and shields on the ends of the tanks to prevent punctures. The problem is that older cars do not have to be retrofitted. According to the NTSB the cars have a long service life, and commingling the older cars with newer ones negates the safety benefits. DeFazio says the federal government could mandate the cars be upgraded in the 2014 rail reauthorization bill, but he expects industry and Republicans to fight that.
Griffin’s video shows rusty tank cars filled with chemicals, leaks that have dripped from railcars rolling by and how easy it is for someone to leap onto a train. The footage shows these cars passing businesses, houses, people, mountain lakes and forests.
Lisa Arkin of Beyond Toxics says the dangerous and leaking tank cars are both an environmental and a social injustice: “Our local railroads not only transport but park tankers in neighborhoods,” she says, “which serves to illustrate the monstrously common problem of disproportional impacts — the tankers are old and they do leak.” She says neighborhoods including Whiteaker, River Road, Trainsong and Bethel, which are historically lower-income, face the most hazards.
Griffin says if there is one thing he has learned from train hopping, it’s to take an inventory of what you really need versus what you simply want. Having too much stuff will get you killed hopping a train, he says. His sleeping bag almost got him dragged under a railcar’s wheels; noisy utensils got him caught by the “bull dog” (train security). He learned to dress in layers and eat fruit from Dumpsters instead.
Griffin says a train carrying hydrochloric acid through town is a byproduct of consumer commodities. He says the question to ask ourselves, if we want any type of healthy future, is: Do we really need those commodities?