Two years ago this week, a runaway oil train roared down hill and exploded, killing 47 people in the middle of the night. It decimated the small town of Lac-Megantic, Canada, and set off a roiling storm of protest that is peaking again with more than 80 planned actions against oil-by-rail in the next few days.
In Portland, Oregon, on Monday, 60 people blocked the tracks of a key oil transfer station, holding signs with the names and ages of the Lac-Megantic victims. Police arrested four other protesters near Oakland, California, after they suspended themselves from a major rail bridge, attempting to dangle a banner that read: “Stop Oil Trains Now: Are You in the Blast-Zone.org.”
Elsewhere, the gatherings ranged from sit-ins to marches to outright blockades. And they’re expected to escalate and expand as the week progresses, building to mass demonstrations on Saturday in Baltimore, Maryland, and Richmond, California.
The organizers include 350.org, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network and ForestEthics, the group behind a grimly popular map of known oil train routes. Released last year, it offers one of the first detailed measures of how many people are at risk of another Lac-Megantic type disaster, and where.
The results themselves are practically inflammatory. Some 25 million Americans live within the one-mile evacuation zone that the U.S. Department of Transportation recommends for protection against possible oil fires, according to ForestEthics. And while the veins of oil-by-rail go through almost every state, the blast zones disproportionately extend over poorer Americans and minorities.
Hence the Baltimore protests on Saturday, according to Eddie Scher, a spokesperson for ForestEthics. “I think it’s going to be one of our biggest protests,” he told msnbc. “The people there are really fired up. They realized that there’s a link between racial and environmental justice.”
Since 2012, more than 100 million gallons of crude oil have traveled through Baltimore en route to refineries on the coast, according to the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the main on-the-ground organizer in Baltimore. By its count, thousands of Baltimore residents live in the blast zone.
What all these organizations want is a complete ban on so-called bomb trains, but the market is a fearsome opponent. Freight traffic is expanding even as oil prices fall or stagnate. And the growth is expected to keep climbing as machines continue to strip-mine the tar sands of Alberta and the Bakken shale of North Dakota.
The Sightline Institute, a think tank in Seattle, recently counted 15 different new oil terminals in Oregon and Washington state alone. That’s enough to service an extra hundred oil trains a week, a rolling pipeline as large as the entire Keystone XL. It’s also enough to alarm people who have watched spills rise along with traffic.
"Railroads have dramatically improved their safety over the last three decades, with the 2014 train accident rate trending at being the lowest ever."'
Last year oil trains spilled their cargo more often in than in any year since the federal government began collecting data on such incidents in 1975, an NBC News analysis recently showed.
The record number of spills sparked a fireball in Virginia, polluted groundwater in Colorado, and destroyed a building in Pennsylvania, causing at least $5 million in damages and the loss of 57,000 gallons of crude oil. Those accidents followed another record year in 2013, when major derailments in Alabama and North Dakota leached a record 1.4 million gallons — more than was lost in the prior 40 years combined.
Ed Greenberg, a spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads, the industry's principal trade group, sharply disagrees with the protesters' concerns. With 40 times more oil being hauled along U.S. rail lines in 2015 than in 2005, he told msnbc, the raw number of incidents has increased — but the railroads have never been safer overall.
"Railroads have dramatically improved their safety over the last three decades, with the 2014 train accident rate the lowest ever," he said, citing multi-billion-dollar investments in new cars, tracks, and workers. Last year, he added, 99.97% of all hazardous material on the rails reached its destination without incident. And overall, incidents are down 45 percent since the year 2000.
"That said," Greenberg acknowledges, "the freight rail industry recognizes, as a shared responsibility with shippers, continuous improvement is needed to advance the safer movement of this product with zero incidents being our goal.”
Of course, that’s no comfort to people who can mark the time by the rumble of passing locomotives. For them, 99.97% safe is just another way to say it’s only a matter of time before it’s not.
Larry Mann, the principal author of the landmark Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970, thinks the oil trains are accidents waiting to happen. "Back in 1991, I said, 'One day a community is going to get wiped out by a freight train,” he recently told NBC News. "Well, in 2013 that happened, and unless something changes it's going to happen again."
This week’s protesters could not agree more.