Massive Minnesota Oil Spill Raises Questions about Safety of Transporting Oil by Rail

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As oil exports from Canada to the United States expand, so do the risks associated with rail transport.  Early in the morning of March 27, 2013, a mile-long Canadian Pacific train hauling Canadian crude oil went into emergency braking mode outside the small town of Parker Prairie, Minnesota. Fourteen freight and tanker cars derailed. Three of them ruptured, spilling an estimated 15,000 gallons of oil.  The reason for the accident is still being investigated. However, the rail line re-opened and trains began running again the next day. 

As Canadian oil exports exceed pipeline capacity, more and more oil is being transported by rail. Reuters quotes the following statistics from the Association of American Railroads and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration:

  • U.S. trains carried 233,800 carloads of crude oil in 2012, as opposed to 65,800 transported in 2011, and 29,600 in 2010. 
  • Spill incidents have increased proportionately.
  • Out of 132 spills from trains in the U.S. between 2002 and 2012, 112 occurred in the last three years.

The recent oil spill poses the question of whether, as more oil comes into the United States by rail, risks to people increase. The problem, according to Jim Hall, transportation consultant and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, is that railroads — as opposed to pipelines —travel through populated areas.

A lucky combination of cold weather — which thickened the oil — and frozen ground may have mitigated the effects of the Parker Prairie disaster.  The clean-up of surface oil took only a few days.  However, tests continue to determine if any oil seeped into the ground. Investigation continues by the Otter Tail Sheriff’s Department, Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Federal Railroad Administration. 

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