Do You Live in the Blast Zone of an Exploding Oil Train?

This map will tell you. Find out today!

Jul 8 2014, 7:30pm
The oil train explosion at Lac-Megantic. Image: Wikimedia

Between Canada's tar sands and the US fracking boom, North America is pumping out a record amount of oil. All that oil needs to be transported, often across thousands of miles, from wellhead to refinery to port, in order to make it to market. Since our pipelines are overflowing, oil companies are turning to trains, and a lot of those trains are exploding. 

A truly exponential increase in train traffic has lead to a spike in accidents and collisions. In 2013 alone, there were more oil train explosions than in the last 40 years combined. The worst of them can be downright catastrophic—an oil train derailment in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic last July leveled 30 buildings and left 47 people dead. This drone's eye view of a more recent explosion in Virginia helps convey a sense of the 'average' oil train derailment.

To call attention to this spreading oil train epidemic, the environmental group ForestEthics produced an interactive map that will tell you if you're one of the 25 million people living in the blast zone of the flaming crude delivery system. Called, appropriately, Oil Train Blast Zone, the tool combines US Census data with Department of Transportation guidelines—which establish a half-mile evacuation zone for spills and a full mile for fires—to estimate how many people are at risk from the oil trains, and where.

If your home is along of those yellow lines, you may want to hire a trainspotter. 

Matt Krogh, the Campaign Director for ForestEthics, hopes the visualization will help citizens understand the risk trains pose to their communities, and how it's arisen.

"Part of the problem is that there has been a meteoric rise in crude by rail in the last 5 years—over 4,200 percent, from fewer than 9,500 total cars of oil in 2008 to over 410,000 train tank cars in 2013," Krogh told me in an email. "That new new volume is only achievable with the use of giant, 100+ car unit trains (3 million gallons or more) that represent a huge concentration of risk. To assemble these trains, the industry relies on 1970s era tank cars (called the DOT 111) that the National Transportation Safety Board has been shouting are unsafe for flammable liquids since 1991."

In other words, the crude-carrying vessels have become both a lot bigger and a lot older, greatly increasing the probability that one of them will turn into an oily fireball. And the areas at risk include high-density population centers, too. Oil trains run directly through the center of Philadelphia and Baltimore, for instance.

And, predictably, federal regulators haven't been able to keep up with the dangerous surge in train traffic, though that could change soon.

"Right now, the Obama administration is considering a draft of new rules on rail safety with special attention to the DOT 111, alternate routing through cities or main streets, speed limits, and the like," Krogh said. "So, the action goal of Blast Zone is to prompt people to tell Obama and Congress that they care about this issue, understand the rail safety concerns, and oppose the use of DOT 111s in both the US and Canada."

Until then, we're likely to continue to see more oil train explosions. Perversely, oil companies are arguing that the rise in train accidents should be reason to approve more pipelines—like the controversial Keystone XL—even though those are likely to rupture, too.

"With the glut of crude in the Bakken shale deposits and tar sands in Alberta, oil companies are desperate to get this stuff to coastal markets—and all the communities in between are being put at risk by this runaway industry," Krogh said. "As a resident of one of those communities, I don't think that's right."