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Mother Jones highlights the national problem of oil tank car explosions

Photo of Brant Stogner

The surge in domestic oil production has generated intense debate about the environmental impact of fracking and gas pipelines.

Little attention has been paid however to highly dangerous oil train transportation practices.

Last summer a freight train derailed in Quebec and the ensuing explosions leveled the downtown area of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people. Mother Jones magazine reports that the Lac-Mégantic tragedy involved oil tank cars with well-documented safety flaws.

Another serious oil car derailment occurred on December 30, 2013, outside of Casselton, North Dakota.

The ensuing explosion could be heard for miles but resulted in no fatalities.

Both of these accidents involved rail carts manufactured to Department of Transportation (DOT) specification 111-A100W1. Deborah A.P. Hersman, the former Chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, characterized these oil carts as an "unacceptable public risk" in congressional testimony.

"Indeed, as the volume of flammable materials transported by rail grows, the Casselton, North Dakota, accident has become an increasingly commonplace story-and multiple recent serious and fatal accidents reflect substantial shortcomings in tank car design that create an unacceptable public risk," Chairwoman Hersman said.

There are about 200,000 DOT-111 model tank cars in service and about a third of these cars carry crude oil and other flammable liquids.

Mother Jones reports that the vast expansion of oil rail shipments has resulted in an unprecedented increase in oil leaks and explosions. Trains reportedly spilled more oil in 2013 than in all years since 1971 combined.

Some recent regulatory efforts have aimed at decreasing the amount of oil leaks and explosions from outdated train carts. The Department of Transportation pulled older DOT-111 cars from the rails this month. Canadian officials have ordered rails to stop carrying crude oil by 2017.

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