By Brenda Flanagan
Three years ago, residents in a sleepy Quebec town jolted awake to fire and thunder — exploding train tank cars of volatile Bakken crude oil. Forty-seven people died in that disaster and New Jersey politicians fear a similar catastrophe in this most-densely populated state where 15 to 30 so-called “bomb trains” roll through Bergen County every week past houses, churches and schools.
“And that means that every day we are playing Russian roulette with our schools and our neighborhoods and our families,” said Jeff Tittel, New Jersey Sierra Club director.
“The U.S. Department of Transportation predicts we will see explosions and disasters with increasing frequency as more Bakken crude is shipped to refineries. We feel as if this isn’t a question of if, but when,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg.
“We’re here because we’re concerned. We want transparency about what’s moving through our communities and we want emergency preparedness,” said New Jersey Work Environment Council Executive Director Dan Fatton.
State lawmakers and advocates called a news conference to support right-to-know bills designed to enhance oversight of crude oil trains barreling across New Jersey. One directs that towns be given travel schedules and that everyone along those routes can access detailed disaster response plans.
“These are the kinds you want to learn in a drill, rather than a real event. And I think that’s the kind of thing that’s going to save lives,” said Sen. Bob Gordon.
Some first responders have already been trained to use special oil firefighting foam equipment. The bill requires that training in every town bisected by a rail line carrying hazardous crude. Meanwhile, CSX notes firefighters can always use its app to decode what’s inside tank cars and says the number of trains currently traversing in New Jersey has dropped to five to 15 per week. But the Christie administration has consistently opposed providing any oil train schedules as a security risk. But Weinberg says trains often sit idle.
“So those people who say we are somehow going to divulge secret information to terrorists can walk along here any day, look at the markings on each of the freight cars and know exactly what’s idling right here in the middle of our communities,” she said.
The bill also requires rail companies to provide enough insurance to deal with catastrophic losses — that’s billions of dollars in New Jersey. A separate resolution asks Congress to pass the Crude-by-Rail Safety Act, requiring similar emergency response plans for towns nationwide and calling for tougher, safer rail cars.
“Quite frankly, we’ve dodged bullets all around this country. I don’t want to have a bullet finally hit here in New Jersey,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.
The Senate bills come up for a vote tomorrow, the Assembly versions next week. They’re expected to pass easily. Their reception in the governor’s office? Less certain.