On Monday, a tanker train carrying more than 3 million gallons of oil derailed in Fayette County, West Virginia, just outside of Montgomery. Nineteen tanker cars, each carrying up to 30,000 gallons of crude oil, left the track and caught fire, setting off an explosion that one resident said was “like an atomic bomb went off.” At least one tanker plunged into Armstrong Creek, a Kanawha river tributary.
No injuries or deaths were reported, but two homes were destroyed, and about 1,000 people were displaced. Two water treatment facilities were temporarily closed. The West Virginia National Guard is testing water samples, but has been unable to determine how much, if any, of the oil that spilled has made it into the Kanawha River, which supplies water to thousands of West Virginians.
The West Virginia explosion came just days after another oil-bearing train derailed in Ontario, Canada. On Saturday, 29 railway cars of a 100-car train derailed, spilling oil and catching fire near Timmons, Ontario. Seven cars were still burning on Monday, when the West Virginia train derailed.
Thanks to the boom in the Bakken shale oil patch in North Dakota and Montana, the number of rail cars used to ship crude oil has increased 4,000 percent — from 9,500 carloads in 2008, to 435,000 in 2013. They’re called “bomb trains” because they’ve been involved in similar accidents in Virginia, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Alabama. In 2013, 47 people were killed when a derailed train exploded near Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.
A similar accident in Lynchburg, Virginia, last year prompted the Obama administration to consider recommending safety upgrades, including thicker tanks, shields to prevent tankers from crumpling, rollover protections, and electronic brakes to stop tanks simultaneously, instead of slamming into each other. These requirements, currently under White House review, would cause tens of thousands of older tank cars used to carry oil and other flammable liquids to be phased out, costing the oil and rail industries billions of dollars.
It’s no surprise that the oil and rail industries are against these safety upgrades. They’d prefer better track maintenance and slower speeds to spending money to make sure their tankers don’t explode. These industries have successfully blocked new recommendations from the Department of Transportation for 20 years, thanks in part to lawmakers like California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, chairman of House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.
According to OpenSecrets, the oil and railroad industries were among the top ten contributors to Denham’s campaign committee in the last election cycle. In fact, Denham was among the top five recipients of railway money in the 2013–2014 election cycle.
Rep. Denham’s industry backers got their money’s worth out of him this month. On February 3, almost two weeks before the train derailment in West Virginia, Denham’s subcommittee held a hearing titled, “How the Changing Energy Markets Will Affect U.S. Transportation,” featuring witnesses from the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of Railroads.
One witness got under Rep. Denham’s skin — Greg Saxton, chief engineer for the tank car manufacturer Greenbriar. Saxton was heavily quoted in an oped in The Modesto Bee, a paper in Denham’s home district. Saxton visited Lac-Mégantic, Quebec as the train cars were still smoldering. “There was a funeral every day,” Saxton recalled, “morning, noon, and night.” Saxton’s solution was to build a better tank car. His new design informed the safety upgrades currently under White House review.
Denham made it clear where he stood.
Rep. Denham went to bat for the railway and oil industries, to delay safety standards for oil tankers rolling through American towns and cities every day — maybe yours. (Check here to find out if you live in an oil train blast zone.) Modesto is also home to Greenbriar’s manufacturing facility. New safety upgrades would likely mean new jobs in Rep. Denham’s home district, but he seems more concerned with making sure his industry friends don’t have to spend money upgrading their tankers. (After all, that means they can give more of it to his campaign.)
Rep. Denham’s response isn’t just about earning his campaign contributions. Pushing back against safety upgrades for the hundreds of thousands of oil tankers traveling through American cities and towns is as much a part of conservatism itself as the “e. coli conservatism” that brought us multiple outbreaks of food contamination, and the anti-science conservatism that led potential GOP presidential candidates to come out against vaccinating children for measles — in the midst of a measles outbreak.
While conservatives like Rep. Denham play to an anti-science conservatism that values “liberty” over safety, and allow his corporate donors to put profit above public safety, the rest of us are left to wonder: When will the next “bomb train” go off? And where?