Crude oil trains: The thrill of the spill?

Posted: July 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

oil train

To: Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx
Regarding: Crude oil rail shipments in upstate New York

Dear Secretary Foxx:

The initial purpose of this letter had been to urge you to (1) ban, with an emergency order, the use of DOT-111 cars for transporting crude oil; (2) implement NTSB safety recommendations on crude oil transport, and (3) immediately open a public process for developing new rules and regulations governing oil transportation.

Please pardon me. Transporting crude oil long distances has never made much sense to me. Now it is obvious to me that what I fear most are my own thoughts.

I must carefully consider those thoughts.

For one, I am afraid of the thought that the DOT-111 railcars transporting tens of millions of gallons of Bakken crude oil through upstate New York every week are substandard, lacking basic safety features listed by the National Transportation Safety Board, U.S. and Canadian safety agencies, Congressional researchers, etc.

Of course it is merely my thought that I am afraid of. I’m not afraid a train will wreck at or near the Port of Albany, sparking a catastrophic fire and the chaos of a forced emergency evacuation. I’m afraid of the thought of it.

(This is a good illustration of those kind of thoughts: What a spill might look like.

Neither am I afraid of some kind of spill scenario that results in contamination of New York waterways. Especially one that might, in the near future, involve heavy crude that will sink, rendering cleanup impractical or even impossible. I’m not afraid of such an event – only of the thought of such an event.

I realize now that I can change my thoughts.

Look it’s just obvious to me that we’re just going to go on feeding our national addiction – and this is George W. Bush’s term, not my own – to OIL– until the various it causes, or the resultant global heating and the destruction of food and water resources kills us all. I mean if we haven’t started to get off it BY NOW what with all the breakthroughs in renewable energy making it basically as inexpensive to use solar energy as it is to use fossil fuels.

Man, that word, OIL, just looks good in bold type, doesn’t it? I mean, if there were one word meant to be in bold type, it’s OIL.


This isn’t about the automobile, by the way. I personally love the automobile and, in particular, the American automobile. Why just today I cast my eyes on this humdinger of a 1967 Ford Mustang and I swear my heart just about broke because it was for sale. It was this sort of metallic sea green color, a custom job, and all the chrome had either been restored or replaced and it was only about eight grand. See it reminded me a little bit of Steve McQueen in Bullitt but it was a little bit older and … yeah, better. Snazzier. It had the “stang” that goes into Mustang, you know?

Actually the “baddest” car I ever had occasion to call my own was this handed-down, early 1970s four-door LeMans. Poor thing had been driven around a retirement community in Florida. I don’t have to tell you how wrong it was to put four doors on a LeMans fastback. And then it had the two-tone thing going on, a white roof with a lime green – no a sickly lime green – body.

I digress. Perhaps it is the P.J. O’Rourke I’ve been reading, Driving Like Crazy: Thirty Years of Vehicular Hell-Bending, Celebrating America the Way It’s Supposed To Be – With an Oil Well in Every Backyard, a … of the Federal Reserve Mowing Our Lawn.

My point is that we have gone about this global warming/pollution/cancer thing all wrong. We can’t fight an addiction to oil via repression. We need to embrace it. Oh, yes, I may have personally switched to a bicycle, etc. I’m not talking about personal decisions, however, but policy.

The “bomb” trains they’re talking about – the ones carrying life-threatening crude through our beloved urban environments and threaten our irreplaceable waterways — present a rare opportunity to live a little, to create excitement, yay, to laugh in the face of all the “fun-suckers,” as O’Rourke calls them.

Why, the risk of a single spill undoing decades of cleanup of the Hudson, including PCB dredging, should be enough to excite even the most zombified victims of fun-sucking.

Rather than leave it to chance, the stakes in this oil game have been raised significantly due to the increased volume of crude being transported on the Hudson River — now that 2.8 billion gallons are permitted to move through the state annually with as much as seven billion gallons a possibility. That’s what I’m hearing, anyway.

The stakes would be raised again with the transportation of heavy crude which will sink to the bottom of – let’s just say the Hudson River, for laughs — when spilled. That would make cleanup … well nothing is impossible, of course. So let’s just say – whatever is closest to impossible while still leaving open the most remote possibility that somehow, some day, removal of contaminants without creating even more damage might become more than a fantasy.

Of course even with light crude only a small percentage is recovered after a spill, noted National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration scientific support coordinator Ed Levine.

Again, though, this is just a thought. I was alarmed by this dark thought. Just as I was alarmed by the thought that Business Week has reported that CSX Transportation said it hauls an average of 20 to 35 trains a week, each carrying at least a million gallons of crude, across 17 upstate New York counties from the west to Albany and then south along the Hudson.

ALREADY hauls that much – with as many as 44 such trains a week rolling through the state.

Then I realized what I had somehow, in all my wittering, twittering, petty worrying, failed to grasp:

Bomb trains bring back the thrill!

It’s that element of risk that O’Rourke refers to in his paean to the American automobile.

Embrace – and celebrate — the addiction to OIL.

I would suggest two things:

One, designing a BOMB TRAIN THEME PARK to combine nostalgia for the simple thrills of the old-time amusements with the potential devastation of the crude oil-carrying rail tankers. Consider that a fire – “the fire in the sky,” it was called – ended (in the mid 1970s) the useful life of the structure called the “Last Railroad Bridge,” the 1870s span over the Hudson at Poughkeepsie, and you’ll begin to understand the kind of thrills we’re talking about.

Design a roller-coaster for oil train tankers and watch folks line up to ride. (I apologize. I did not mean to use the word, “folks.” For those playing the drinking game that involves downing a shot every time someone uses the word, “folks,” consider — at least consider — taking a pass on drinking by ignoring the supercilious use of the word, “folks” here.

Bomb trains bring back the thrill of the old-time amusement park — not to mention the thrill of a 1940s school air raid drill and the very real threat of attack. So, go on, build it – and they will … duck?

Second, launching an inaugural, BOMB TRAIN DAYS festival to commemorate a huge expansion in oil rail traffic through upstate New York, Albany and along the Hudson River. No longer does the United States have to rely on Third-World countries to supply us with oil – why, it’s almost as if we have become a Third-World country.

Oh, sure, we’ll persist with our boring solar, dreary passive wind power, and other renewables. But for years – perhaps decades – we might still experience the old-time excitement of petroleum combined with new technologies in scraping the barrel, so to speak, for that hard-to-get fuel.

With oil, we get the satisfaction of knowing that marine creatures will perish, that cancer rates will increase, and that global warming will advance beyond the tipping point toward elimination of life on Earth … why It’s the edge of death that makes us feel alive! Ain’t it the truth?

Or … you could, I guess, oppose the bomb trains to ensure immediate safety, long-term health, the sustainability of life itself on Earth, and, of course, a transition to less exciting (I guess) energy sources. I’m seeing opportunity here … and it just turns me on.

I would understand, though, if you’re not willing to risk the continued existence of the human species and advanced life forms on Earth for greater ease and speed to process fossil fuels for consumption.

If you decided to (1) ban, with an emergency order, the use of DOT-111 cars for transporting crude oil; (2) implement NTSB safety recommendations on crude oil transport, and (3) immediately open a public process for developing new rules and regulations governing oil transportation … I won’t get depressed. In fact I’ll probably still find reason to celebrate. That’s just the kind of folks I am.

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