More Oil Spilled in 2013 US Rail Incidents than Previous 37 Years Combined

By James Burgess,

A new analysis of data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has shown that more crude oil was spilled in US rail incidents last year than during the entire history of the data series, going back 37 years.

In 2013, more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil were spilled from rail cars. This includes the derailment in Aliceville, Alabama on the 8th of November when 748,800 gallons spilled as the train derailed in a swampy area and burst into flames. But it does not yet the derailment in Casselton, North Dakota, on December 30, for which the PHMSA has yet to receive the data, although it is estimated to be in the region of 400,000 gallons, which would bring the total for the US to over 1.5 million gallons.

This figure does not include spills that occurred in Canada, including the July derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that spilled over 1.5 million gallons of crude oil.

In contrast to 2013, the total crude oil spilled from 1975, when federal records began, to 2012 was 800,000 gallons. In eight of those years, not one drop of crude oil was spilled; and in five, only one gallon or less was spilled.

The increase noted last year is due to the fact delivering oil by rail has become a much more popular choice of transport as pipeline capacity has been unable to keep pace with the increases in oil production during the North American shale boom. The Association of American Railroads has estimated that 400,000 carloads of crude oil were shipped last year, and with each car holding 28,800 gallons that totals more than 11.5 billion gallons.

Out of a total 11.5 billion gallons transported by rail, to only spill 1.15 million gallons equals a 99.99 percent success rate, but 1.15 million gallons is still a large amount.

Other than the vast increase in the amount of crude transported by rail, another potential reason for the increase in spills is that until just a few years ago crude oil carrying trains were not 80-100 cars long as they are today.

Last week, the Washington regulators of crude oil shipments transported by rail met with representatives from the railroad and oil industry in order to discuss changes to how crude oil is shipped by rail, including new designs for tanker cars, appropriate driving speeds, and ideal routes to take. The changes are expected to be announced within the next 30 days. By James Burgess,

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