They rumble past schools, homes and businesses in dozens of cities around the country — 100-car trains loaded with crude oil from the Upper Midwest.
While railroads have long carried hazardous materials through congested urban areas, cities are now scrambling to formulate emergency plans and to train firefighters amid the latest safety threat: a fiftyfold increase in crude shipments that critics say has put millions of people living or working near the tracks at heightened risk of derailment, fire and explosion.
After a series of fiery crashes, The Associated Press conducted a survey of nearly a dozen big cities that, collectively, see thousands of tank cars each week, revealing a patchwork of preparedness. Some have plans specifically for oil trains; others do not. Some fire departments have trained for an oil train disaster; others say they’re planning on it. Some cities are sitting on huge quantities of fire-suppressing foam, others report much smaller stockpiles.
The AP surveyed emergency management departments in Chicago; Philadelphia; Seattle; Cleveland; Minneapolis; Milwaukee; Pittsburgh; New Orleans; Sacramento, California; Newark, New Jersey; and Buffalo, New York. The responses show emergency planning remains a work in progress even as crude has become one of the nation’s most common hazardous materials transported by rail. Railroads carried some 500,000 carloads last year, up from 9,500 in 2008.
“There could be a huge loss of life if we have a derailment, spill and fire next to a heavily populated area or event,” said Wayne Senter, executive director of the Washington state association of fire chiefs. “That’s what keeps us up at night.”