Wednesday’s train derailment in Lynchburg, Va. offered a most timely reminder about the public safety threat inherent in shipping oil by rail.
It was a day the federal Transportation Department announced it had forwarded to the White House a long-awaited proposal for new rules governing the practice. In a related move, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrote the president urging his prompt attention on the matter, which obviously affects upstate New York — and especially Albany. That’s because oil trains are passing through or stopping to unload cargo here, and some of it is being subsequently shipped down the Hudson to refineries elsewhere.
A big part of the danger is posed by the antiquated tanker cars in use: They’re generally not sturdy enough to withstand a derailment without rupturing. And ruptures — as in Lac-Megantic, Quebec last summer, Casselton, N.D. in December and Lynchburg on Wednesday — typically result in spectacular fires, as dangerous for their soaring flames as their thick, black smoke.
Spills have also jeopardized water supplies, such as occurred Wednesday when three of the 14 cars that derailed slipped into the James River.
Government safety officials deemed the design of the DOT-111 rail cars unsafe two decades ago, and though they’re being phased out, too many are still in use. (On a positive note, Global Partners, the Massachusetts-based company that has a terminal at the Port of Albany for its Midwest crude shipments, said Wednesday it would stop using them next month.)
At the very least, President Obama needs to approve a rule requiring the prompt retrofitting or phaseout of these cars, as Canada did last month. There’s too much at stake, with the environment and the health and safety of heavily populated areas, as trains are increasingly being used to move oil about the country.