“We Got Lucky” – Four Years After Lac-Megantic, Another Oil Train Accident

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We were very lucky in this instance,” Plainfield Fire Chief David Riddle said. “There was no fire, nobody got hurt by the grace of God.”

As the residents of Lac-Megantic were preparing to acknowledge the 4th anniversary of the oil train disaster that leveled and poisoned their downtown and killed 47 people, residents of Plainfield, Illinois were happy to just be complaining about the odor of spilled oil after a train pulling 115 tank cars of Canadian crude oil derailed near their neighborhood.

According to media reports 20 of the tank cars derailed with at least two punctured, resulting in an oil spill of approximately 40,000 gallons. Ironically the local river may have been protected thanks to the continued expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in America. The majority of the oil ended up in a ditch near the tracks destined for a new natural gas pipeline.

This latest lucky break comes just over a year after DeSmog published an article titled “Luck Rides the Rails” about the oil train derailment, spill and fire in Mosier, Oregon in which we detailed the numerous close calls that have occurred with oil train derailments.

Federal Railroad Administration Changes Policy On Providing Information

A DeSmog email to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) with basic questions about the latest derailment resulted in a response with no answers and a recommendation to reach out “to the railroad directly.” This appears to indicate a change in FRA policy regarding releasing information to the press and public.

In last year’s derailment in Mosier, Oregon, the Obama administration FRA actively pushed details of the June 3rd crash to the media via email starting the day of the crash.

From: Lehner, Matthew (FRA)

Sent: Friday, June 03, 2016 2:23 PM


Subject: Union Pacific derailment near Hood River, Ore.

Good afternoon,

The Federal Railroad Administration is aware of a train derailment near Hood River, Ore. Investigators are en route.

We will provide more information as it becomes available and when FRA arrives on site.

A second email on June 3rd confirmed the accident involved Bakken oil. A fourth update on June 5th included the following details.

Fourth update:

Good afternoon,

This is expected to be the final weekend update regarding the Union Pacific derailment in Oregon on Friday. We will provide another update tomorrow.

We have confirmed the tank cars were jacketed CPC-1232s. The tank cars had full-height head shields.

A total of 16 tank cars derailed.

The crude oil had a vapor pressure of 9.2.

Damaged equipment is currently being re-railed and the product from the damaged tank cars is being off-loaded.

The evacuation order was lifted Saturday.

EPA and the Coast Guard remain leads on all water and river issues.

So it would appear there has been a change in policy regarding providing the public with information relating to oil train accidents.

DeSmog has reached out to Canadian National, the company that operated the train involved in the latest incident, but with the rail industry’s consistent history of keeping information from the public, we are not expecting any answers.

Conflicts of Interest and Lack of Leadership in Regulatory Agencies

As DeSmog has previously reported, the current head of the Department of Transportation (DOT), Secretary Elaine Chao, is still being paid millions by Wells Fargo, the owner of the largest private rail fleet in America. Additional hurdles to an effective and transparent operation include the fact that the division of the DOT/FRA responsible for oil train safety, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), currently has no administrator with the position simply being listed as “Vacant” on the PHMSA website.

The current acting deputy administrator of PHMSA is Howard McMillan. While McMillan has a diverse resume it does not include any experience with trains, pipelines or hazardous materials which apparently didn’t hinder his appointment by the Trump administration for this important role. According to the Washington Post, the Trump administration has not nominated anyone for PHMSA administrator.

And the situation at the Federal Railroad Administration is very similar. There is no current administrator of the FRA and it is being run by acting administrator Heath Hall who was appointed by Secretary Elaine Chao. Like his counterpart at PHMSA, McMillan has no relevant experience for the job with the following at the top of his bio on the FRA website:

Heath formerly served as president of Strategic Marketing Group, LLC, a full-service public relations firm that specializes in general and crisis public relations, media maximization, government affairs, fundraising, and political campaigns.

With the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory policy combined with a lack of any relevant experience for the people currently serving as placeholders in leadership roles overseeing rail safety it is unlikely that new regulations to improve rail safety are forthcoming. This past week the Trump administration did finally name a nominee to head the FRA — Ronald L. Batory, recently retired from his role as president of rail company Conrail.

So, if confirmed, the head of the FRA will soon be a former top rail executive. On the home page of the Conrail site it says “Conrail is a service provider for CSX Corporation and Norfolk Southern Corporation” which are both major players in the oil-by-rail business.

What does seem clear is what the CEO of the Association of American Railroads Edward Hamberger said shortly after Donald Trump was elected regarding railroads and regulation when he told a conference, that “The policy landscape in Washington, D.C., dramatically shifted on Election Day…”

Industry Continues to Fight Safety and Push Public Relations Instead

It would appear that the rail industry is taking full advantage of this new policy landscape. The same week as the 4th anniversary of the Lac-Megantic disaster that was fueled by Bakken oil, North Dakota politicians said they expect to not renew a rail safety inspection program.

Meanwhile, Oregon lawmakers were moving forward with a plan to keep oil spill response plans secret from the public but the effort was derailed when investigative journalist Rob Davis revealed the plan.

Oregon Public Radio reported on how this plan came to be part of the proposed law:

“The language in question was added during a long negotiating process involving railroads, who lobbied against the original version of a bill that would have given the state oversight of their response plans and assessed a fee on rail carriers to pay for additional spill planning.”

As usual, it was the industry shaping the regulations regarding oil train safety. And when attempts were made to pass a bill that would include transparency regarding industry spill response plans, the bill was tabled. So in Oregon when it comes to oil-by-rail safety the options are to vote on a bill shaped by the industry that keeps the public in the dark…or nothing.

And while the oil and rail industries continue to fight safety regulations regarding oil trains, they also continue to push forward with public relations efforts to create the illusion of safety.

On the actual day of the fourth anniversary of Lac-Megantic, the San Diego Tribune reported that the local fire department was “getting [a] special firefighting vehicle for oil tanker derailments” as California is expecting to see an increase in oil train traffic. While this makes for a good press release, the reality is that for any oil train fire the recommended strategy is to evacuate everyone and let the fires burn themselves out.

As rail safety consultant Fred Millar told the audience at the national oil train conference in 2015, “Emergency response is a distraction from what we have to do.” Millar went on to blame the media for reporting stories like this latest one claiming emergency responders are prepared to deal with oil tanker fires. 

You can see highlights of Millar’s talk in this video:

Luck As Policy

In the recent Plainfield accident, the oil and rail industries once again rode their lucky streak and avoided a major incident. However, since no meaningful changes have been made regarding oil by rail safety, eventually the luck will run out. 

In 2016, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher A. Hart reiterated how lucky the industry has been to date to the Washington Post.  

We’ve been lucky thus far that derailments involving flammable liquids in America have not yet occurred in a populated area,” Hart said. “But an American version of Lac-Mégantic could happen at any time. Instead of happening out in the middle of a wheat field it could happen in the middle of a big city.”

Eventually the luck will run out and there will be a disaster. Perhaps the industry and Trump administration are well aware of this but have chosen to support profits over safety. That certainly would be one reason to have an acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration experienced in “crisis public relations” instead of having any actual rail experience. 


Main Blog Image: Plainfield Oil Train Derailment and Spill  Source: Screen capture from WGN TV

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Justin Mikulka is a research fellow at New Consensus. Prior to joining New Consensus in October 2021, Justin reported for DeSmog, where he began in 2014. Justin has a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.

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