Environment

Train carrying oil derails, explodes in Alabama

Derailment is latest in string of incidents as US increasingly relies on rail to transport oil

Smoke rises from derailed train cars in western Alabama on Nov. 8, 2013.
WBMA via Reuters

A 90-car train carrying crude oil derailed in western Alabama on Friday, causing flames to burst hundreds of feet into the air.

The train was heading from the oil boomtowns of North Dakota to a Shell chemical plant near Mobile, Alabama. Unlike in recent oil train derailments, there were no reports of injuries or deaths. But the incident was another reminder of the dangers of North America’s increased reliance on a patchwork of railroads used to transport billions of gallons of newly discovered oil across the United States and Canada.

Concern had already been raised after a July accident in Lac-Megantic, Canada, in which 47 people were killed.

In Alabama on Friday, 20 of the train’s cars derailed, throwing flames 300 feet into the air. Those cars were being left to burn down, which could take up to 24 hours, according to the train owner, Genesee & Wyoming.

If full, the train, which passes near schools and crosses rivers in the area, could hold up to 65,000 barrels of crude oil.

It was not initially clear what caused Friday's accident in Pickens County, Alabama. The train was being driven by two engineers, both unharmed, officials said.

The accident happened in a wetlands area which eventually feeds into the Tombigbee River, according to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Booms were placed in the wetlands to contain the spilled oil.

Accidents involving oil being transported via train have become more common as oil production has dramatically increased in places like North Dakota and Canada. That has led to flurry of debate over how to best transport the highly-flammable oils, with some advocating for an increased use of pipelines, and others arguing that rail systems make for more environmentally secure transport.

The East and West coasts in particular turned to rail years ago to draw in U.S. and Canadian crude. With no major oil pipelines in operation, or even planned, rail allowed them to tap into the burgeoning shale market.

In the last three months, crude-by-rail shipments rose 44 percent from the previous year to 93,312 carloads, equivalent to about 740,000 barrels per day or almost one tenth of U.S. production.

The practice shows no sign of slowing down. Analysts expect up to 40 times more oil to be transported by trains in the next five years.

While many are concerned, the alternatives for transporting vast amounts of oil don’t seem to please activists and safety experts either. Environmentalists vehemently opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, one of the biggest proposed pipelines in the country.

And research shows that  pipelines, if they leak, can spill much more oil  than trains do.

The most recent round of controversy over transporting oil by freight started over the summer when a train derailed in Lac-Megantic.

That incident, which the operator Montreal Maine & Atlantic blamed on a train engineer not applying enough brakes on an incline, fueled a drive for tougher standards for oil rail shipments.

Since then, there have been several new regulations proposed for oil-by-freight operations, including better labeling for what’s contained in each train, but nothing permanent has been signed into law.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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