West Virginia Derailment Renews Concerns About Trains Carrying Oil Through New Jersey

By Brenda Flanagan

High noon, and the train rumbles by — easily 100 tank cars each carrying some 30,000 gallons of highly volatile Bakken crude oil on the CSX River Line, over the Oradell Reservoir. Specifically over a little, wooden bridge spanning the reservoir, its worn planks and extruding rail spikes all that lie between drinking water for three-quarters of a million people and what some critics call a “bomb train,” like the one that derailed Monday in West Virginia.

“It is so scary to think that those same trains are going over the reservoir with unstable crude oil,” said Paula Rogovin.

Activists protest the tank cars that roll through Bergen County. This engine pulled the old, DOT-111 cars — thin-hulled and far less reinforced than the newer ones, called 1232s. But the derailed West Virginia train pulled all brand new 1232s.

“They blew up. They blew up one after the other. So, that’s not the answer,” said Rogovin.

What is the answer? Alarmed Bergen County residents say, yes upgrade the tank cars, but also maintain the tracks. They cite reports that the CSX tracks in West Virginia tracks had just been inspected.

“Well that inspection was not satisfactory — it wasn’t effective. There was a problem. Whoever’s maintaining the railroad tracks has to raise it two or three levels compared to what they’ve done in the past so that communities like those of us in Bergen County don’t have to go to sleep thinking, this could be the night,” said Art Vatsky.

United Water does not maintain the railroad bridge and agrees: “We are very concerned about oil trains going over our reservoir. They should be upgraded. We’ve expressed those concerns to CSX.”

CSX says in the last few months it’s worked with the U.S. DOT to implement more inspections on its tracks — visually and with high-tech ultrasound; lower speeds for trains carrying more than 20 cars of crude, more trackside train monitoring and end-of train braking devices.

But CSX also notes it is “…obligated to accept for shipment any freight, including crude oil, that is presented to us in containers that are compliant with current federal standards. … CSX does not own the tank cars that are used to transport crude oil.” So it can’t refuse the DOT-111s of Bakken crude rolling through New Jersey — through the heart of Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi’s district — and she says that’s wrong.

“CSX railroad has no say whatsoever as to what products are permitted on their railway and what products are not. So long as the federal government indicates that they have to allow passage of certain products they cannot prohibit it,” she said.

She’s urging New Jersey’s congressional legislation to change that, also to that require rail shippers upgrade tanker safety and treat Bakken crude to remove its lighter, flammable elements — the ones most liable to explode during derailments before it’s load for train transport.

“If the worst case occurred, are we prepared?” asked Schepisi. When ask if we are, she said, “Not yet.”

Activists plan a rally next month. Teaneck Town Council will meet to discuss the issue next week. Like the trains, the debate keeps on rolling — with the level of urgency rising the closer you live to the tracks.