Citizens in St Louis, Kansas City and other major transcontinental railroad cities will be concerned to discover the new and forceful push by the railroads and Trump administration to abruptly but quietly open up the rail system for heavy, hard-to-handle 100-rail car “unit trains” consisting entirely of liquefied natural gas cargoes. The disaster risk this cargo poses is immense, with many neighborhoods and office buildings around St. Louis and other cities sited virtually trackside to rail lines and with many grade crossings offering major accident potential.
We need only look to the evacuations ordered Tuesday in and around Dupo to understand the risks. The cargo in that train accident was a dangerous but less volatile chemical solvent. Super-refrigerated liquefied natural gas, by contrast, qualifies for the label of “bomb train,” not only posing disaster risks from accidents but also as attractive targets for terrorists.
In 2013, a runaway crude oil train exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Sixty-three derailed tank cars caught fire, releasing millions of gallons of flaming oil, killing 47 residents with what survivors called rivers of fire. Fifteen spectacular, fiery crude oil derailments in North America from 2012 to 2016 would seem enough evidence for why it’s a terrible idea to add liquefied natural gas to this flammable mix.
The Trump administration issued speed-up orders on April 10, mandating that federal agencies produce proposed regulations within 100 days to permit liquefied natural gas tank cars on U.S. railways. The railroads’ own liquefied natural gas disaster-risk assessments have been shown to federal agencies but withheld from public view. I have no doubt those assessments are sobering.
The federal agencies’ documents do admit that a release of liquefied natural gas from a derailment would be unstoppable, and that if ignited, it would burn with a huge, hot, unquenchable fire. Any emergency response except evacuation would be impossible. If the release doesn’t immediately ignite, scientists say, the potential worst-case scenario would be a dense, cold ground-hugging liquefied natural gas vapor cloud with a volume 620 times that of the tank cars releasing the liquid.
The cloud can move far into the community, then either ignite or become confined in low-lying areas. A spontaneous explosion would create a huge blast zone.
Communities have a right to know these risks. A sudden, catastrophic 1944 liquefied natural gas storage tank release in Cleveland flowed into the city’s sewers. Explosions killed 127 residents.
As Congress has often stated in considering the siting of liquefied natural gas facilities, protective distance is the key to safety: The emphasis is always on seeking a remote siting to minimize risks to populations. Routing 100-car-long liquefied natural gas trains through major U.S. rail corridor cities like St. Louis would decisively obliterate any notion of protective distance.
All transcontinental rail-corridor states are unfortunately a possible path for future overland liquefied natural gas rail shipments from eastern or Gulf Coast production facilities bound for Pacific Coast export terminals. The president is now openly bullying China and Europe to buy the enormous and growing stockpiles of American liquefied natural gas. A nationwide rail option is seen as key to facilitating such exports.
An alarmed U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill to block this hasty push for approving liquefied natural gas by rail, but the Senate will not agree. Although federal regulatory agencies have not considered adequately the public safety risks, they have scheduled proposed national regulation to reverse the longstanding ban on liquefied natural gas tank cars on U.S. rail. Their early drafts do not impose any significant new public-safety restrictions on train length, train speed or protective rerouting away from population centers.
Local and state public officials should act quickly to defend their constituents against the administration’s bid to weaken occupational and public safety regulations. Even if deterring the administration seems unlikely, any visible opposition from corridor rail cities might prompt some risk-averse investors to think twice about betting on liquefied natural gas in a worldwide gas market that veers wildly between highs and lows in both supply and demand.
In the long run, the most disastrous result of steering investment into liquefied natural gas infrastructure versus renewable energy sources is to prolong the fossil fuels dependence that is at the root of the increasingly dire climate change threats.
Fred Millar is an independent consultant on chemical facility and transportation safety and security based in the Washington, D.C. area.