Oil trains are a proven public hazard

We’re disappointed and scared by railroad companies’ poor effort so far to prevent horrible accidents, or even to share enough information about the hazardous fuels and chemicals they transport.

Amid surging domestic crude oil in the last few years – for instance, the boom at North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields – volatile fuel has been moved in large quantities by rail, in outdated tanker cars. As a result, some derailments and crashes have had severe consequences.

The most prominent was an explosion that killed 47 people last July in Lac-Magentic, Quebec. The most recent was an explosion Wednesday afternoon in Lynchburg, Virginia, that caused an enormous fire and an oil spill into the James River. In between there have been others, such as one in a marsh in Alabama in November and another in North Dakota in December.

For all we know, the next one could be in upstate New York. In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered state agencies to study how such an oil train accident might be handled on New York’s many railroads. The short answer, apparently, was “not well enough.” On Wednesday, around the time of the Lynchburg crash, Gov. Cuomo announced he had sent the reports to President Obama along with a letter urging him for more safety regulations.

Good. History has shown that few companies will enact public safety practices on their own; they need someone to make them do so. For them, dealing with occasional accidents is cheaper than preventing them, and besides, the taxpayers often cover much of the firefighting and cleanup costs at crash sites.

It took the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska to prompt government action to make oil transportation safer by sea. It’s past time to do the same for railroads that pass right through communities and sensitive environments.

The petroleum industry is lucrative, so we doubt new regulations will bankrupt the companies involved. They can afford to prevent disasters better than the public can afford to endure them.

Sure, some government regulations go overboard, so these ones on railroads should be reasonable – but they also need to sufficiently deal with a serious public safety problem.

Even in the protected Adirondack Park, a Canadian-owned company transports this stuff in large quantities along its railroad that skirts the Hudson River and the western Lake Champlain shore, passing through communities like Essex County’s Ticonderoga, Crown Point, Port Henry, Westport and Willsboro. When asked by the county’s emergency services leaders, Canadian Pacific did provide a list of the 25 dangerous commodities it transports along this route, but only on the condition that the county – a public entity – not share the list publicly. Also, the railroad company isn’t giving the county its emergency response plans.

That’s not good enough – and yet CP is one of the few railroads that shares any of this information.

In the town of Essex, Fire Chief Ron Jackson says he’s worried about trains derailing with volatile contents like crude oil and ethanol. He should be.

At the Enterprise office this week, employees just finished watching our annual round of safety videos. The government requires us and every employer to give full information about potential workplace hazards (ours include press-room chemicals and machinery) to all affected employees, not just those who directly handle the stuff. We don’t mind saying that the Enterprise has an excellent safety record, but nevertheless, every employee has to watch more than an hour’s worth of videos every year. The main theme of them is “your right to know.”

People everywhere also have a right to know about dangerous materials being transported through their communities and beside their waterways. They also have a right to expect that the companies doing so are required to follow safety rules that meet modern standards, and to know how those rules are followed. The federal government needs to make that happen.