Oil Train Disaster Preparedness

train oil and gas tankers.jpgIn recent years, the amount of crude oil shipped by rail in the United States has grown by a factor of 50. Oil trains carried around 500,000 cars of crude in 2014 compared with 9,500 in 2008. Traveling to refineries and ports on the nation's coasts, oil trains carrying 100 or more cars pass through some of the country's largest urban areas. The result is that cities are rushing to develop emergency preparedness plans to deal with the disasters that could occur if a train derailed, caught fire or crashed.

Affected cities around the country have dealt with the possibility of oil train disaster in different ways. Some have written detailed emergency plans, but others have not. Some have large quantities of fire-suppressant foam storedaway, while others have none. The Associated Press surveyed emergency management plans in 13 cities across the country. Specifically, the AP investigated the depth of the cities' emergency preparedness in case of an oil train accident.

The cities surveyed experience mile-long trains loaded with light crude from North Dakota's Bakken shale oil fields passing through on their way to terminals and refineries. The trains pass hospitals, schools, sports stadiums and high-density apartment buildings. They run through and under downtown areas, sometimes using old tunnels and bridges not designed to hold the weight of these trains.

Of course, railroads have always shipped hazardous materials. But things are different today. Instead of limiting hazardous materials to a few cars on every train, as was the practice in the past, entire trains are made up of tank cars transporting the flammable liquid. This approach is more efficient, but it is also more dangerous if a derailment or other accident happens. Some experts have estimated that if one of these oil trains derails in a major city, the cost could be billions of dollars and hundreds of lives.

In the past few years, there have been no major derailments in U.S. cities, although there have been numerous fires. However, a derailment in a small Canadian town, Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people and destroyed part of the town. This accident was a wake-up call that some U.S. cities heeded, but others did not. Pittsburgh, for example, has not done much while Milwaukee has trained every firefighter to use special techniques to suppress oil fires. The city sent dozens to Colorado for advanced training, mostly paid for by the railroad industry.

The federal government has stepped in as well, ordering railroads to use electronic braking systems and stronger tank cars. Older, rupture-prone tank cars will continue to be part of oil trains for years to come, however, as the mandate to phase in stronger tankers does not begin until 2018. Moreover, the rail industry continues to challenge even these modest requirements, making it unlikely that anything stronger will be implemented at the federal level anytime soon.

Despite its resistance to stricter regulation, railroads have taken steps to improve the safety of oil trains. Derailments are down, trains move more slowly, track inspections have increased, and connections with local first responders are stronger.

And what about Houston and Texas in general? Hundreds of cars loaded with light crude from the Bakken and elsewhere pass through Houston every week. It would be easy to say that because of its history in the oil business, Texas is better prepared than places like Buffalo, New York, or Sacramento, California, two cities surveyed by the Associated Press for the report.

To some degree, this is true. Texas A&M University has developed a facility near Houston for training first responders on oil fire suppression techniques. However, at least one Houston mayoral candidate has called for better oil train disaster preparedness in Houston, pointing to other cities in the United States as examples. Currently, much of the city's disaster planning appears to address hurricanes, an understandable focus given hurricanes Ike and Allison and the iconic, unnamed hurricane of 1900.


No Comments

Leave a comment
Comment Information

Awards & Recognition

  • 2016-2017 Equal Access to Justice Champion

    The Equal Access to Justice Champions Program was started by the Houston Bar Association in 2006, to help ensure placement of Houston Volunteer Lawyers cases with pro bono volunteers. Originally, firms were tiered according to size, and firms within each tier committed to accept a certain number of pro bono cases from HVL each year for five years.

  • The National Trial Lawyers | Top 100 Trial Lawyers

    The National Trial Lawyers: Top 100 is an invitation-only organization composed of the premier trial lawyers from each state or region who meet stringent qualifications as civil plaintiff and/or criminal defense trial lawyers. Selection is based on a thorough multi-phase objective and uniformly applied process which includes peer nominations combined with third-party research.

  • Million Dollar Advocates Forum

    Established in 1993, the Million Dollar Advocates Forum (which includes the Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum) is one of the most prestigious groups of trial lawyers in the United States. Membership is limited to attorneys who have won million and multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements. There are over 4000 members throughout the country. Fewer than 1% of U.S. lawyers are members.

  • Recognized by Best Lawyers America | Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz | 2017

    Recognition by Best Lawyers is based entirely on peer review. Their methodology is designed to capture, as accurately as possible, the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area.

  • Lead Counsel Rated

    In order to earn the Lead Counsel Rating, an attorney must not only demonstrate significant legal experience, but must also receive multiple peer recommendations advocating his or her ability. This is a key component in the screening process.

  • Texas Super Lawyers | Texas Monthly

    Each year, Super Lawyers recognizes the top lawyers in Texas via a patented multiphase selection process involving peer nomination, independent research and peer evaluation. The Texas lawyers who receive the highest point totals during this selection process are further recognized in Texas Super Lawyers Top Lists.

Get Your Free Case Review 713.587.9668

Let Us Help You Today! Request a Free Consultation

Bold labels are required.

Contact Information

The use of the Internet or this form for communication with the firm or any individual member of the firm does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Confidential or time-sensitive information should not be sent through this form.


Privacy Policy

  • $50+ Million Personal Injury Fire and Explosion

    The firm successfully represented nearly 100 victims who suffered personal injuries and damages to property from a large fire and explosion resulting in a settlement of more than $50 million. The firm served as lead lawyers on the steering committee in this litigation.

  • $80 Million Personal Injury Large Plant Explosion

    The firm successfully represented 270 plaintiffs', taking a lead role in the plaintiffs' steering committee, who suffered injuries in a large plant explosion resulting in a settlement of nearly $80 million.

  • $50+ Million Personal Injury Plant Fire and Explosion

    The firm successfully represented 45 personal injury victims in a plant fire and explosion, serving on the plaintiffs' steering committee, concluding with a settlement of more than $50 million.

  • $22+ Million Personal Injury Work Site Accident

    The firm prevailed in a personal injury trial for a worksite injury client with the jury returning a verdict and resulting in a judgment of over $22 million for the firm's client.

  • $12 Million Auto Accident 18-Wheeler Collision

    The firm successfully achieved a $12 million settlement for the family of a man who died in an 18 wheeler collision.

  • $30 Million Personal Injury Burn Victims

    The firm prevailed on behalf of three burn victims with settlements totaling nearly $30 million.

Our Record Of Success.

When you are hurt and you choose a law firm to represent you in court or at the negotiation table, you need to carefully consider the firm's record.

More Success Stories