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Editorial: Menace of oil trains is everywhere

After “fracking” and horizontal drilling unleashed North Dakota’s Bakken Shale boom a few years ago, crude oil shipments in railway tank cars to refineries skyrocketed. Oil trains soared from 9,500 in 2008 to 400,000 in 2013. Railroad profits from oil-hauling jumped from $26 million to $2 billion yearly.

Danger from these shipments also soared. Tank cars exploded in a small Canadian town in 2013, killing 47 people. Since then, blasts and fires have been common — at Lynchburg, Va., Aliceville, Ala., Casselton, N.D., and two more in Canada, plus Monday’s spectacle near Montgomery.

After the first Canada blast, U.S. safety inspectors launched an intense effort to prevent disasters, which usually happen because cars derail on rickety tracks. But the Federal Railroad Administration has only 76 agents, aided by a few dozen state inspectors, to examine America’s 140,000 miles of track, plus bridges. This means that less than 1 percent of U.S. track can be inspected yearly.

Railway fines for safety violations are so small they have little effect. In 2013, the Federal Railroad Administration issued $14 million in fines — to an industry whose top seven corporations reaped $84 billion profits.

This derailment was bad enough for the affected neighborhoods in Fayette County. Ask yourself: What if Monday’s explosion had occurred in a residential section of Montgomery, or Kanawha City, or South Charleston? What if the blast had happened near a school? Would the Kanawha Valley be in the midst of a major tragedy?

Bakken Shale oil is thinner, more volatile, with more gaseous components like methane, ethane, propane and butane. It’s much more likely to explode from a crash.

Absurdly, as reporter Ken Ward Jr. outlined, the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management refuses to tell West Virginians where and when oil trains pass through their neighborhoods. Although the federal government and other states want this information to be public, state officials continue to hide it. That’s offensive.

Many U.S. rail tracks are aging, some wooden trestles are decaying, and some tank cars themselves are creaky. Upgrading them all would cost billions — an expense railways and shippers naturally try to avoid.

Sen. Joe Manchin and other officials are analyzing Monday’s fiery event near Montgomery. We hope no one else’s community has to go up in black smoke before officialdom launches a safety crackdown — including disclosure of oil train schedules through West Virginia.

This article was from The Charleston Gazette, W.Va. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.