By now most of us have heard about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

But how many of us know that tar sands is already being refined in US refineries?

Oil companies are bypassing the whole pipeline debate and bringing heavy crude in by rail.  And for communities living along those railroads, crude by rail can be disastrous.

Image from rcinet.ca

On July 6, 2013 an oil train derailed in Lac Meganitic, Quebec.  All but one of the 73 cars was carrying oil, and five exploded.  The death toll from this accident is still rising as authorities continue to find bodies in the “burned out ruins”.  

This was a serious wake up call for many living along the railroads.  GCM Board member, Ron Plain, Aamjiwnaang native living near Sarnia, Ontario feared the worst last Friday when yet another train derailed near his community.  Here’s his story –

“At 3:30 this afternoon a train with 80 cars had a brake failure and rear ended another train causing 20 cars to leave the tracks. NONE TIPPED OVER….. ….The collision cause the tracks to crack where the impact took place, right at the north end of Macgregor at the Macgregor switch. I have pictures of the CN crews repairing the track and I have pictures of the train car that was hit showing the damage…. ….CN stated on Monday that they had upgraded safety and five days later brakes fail on a train. CN is doing its very best to make like this didn’t happen.”

I was at a Planning Commission hearing in Benicia, CA a few weeks ago, where the City was debating bringing heavy crude in by rail.  Many folks expressed concern over refining that crude at the nearby refinery.  Conservationists expressed concern for the native and endangered species nearby.  And, many expressed concerns about the increased rail traffic.

Image from DE Sierra Club

Earlier that day, I called our Bucket Brigade leader in Delaware City, Delaware.  The Delaware City Refinery, owned by PBF Energy Partners, started bringing in heavy crude by rail last year.  The community was told it would be “just a few trains”. Currently there are 30 minute back-ups for drivers waiting to cross the tracks.  An oil train is often unmanned and can be nearly 100 cars long.  Even in the case of an emergency, an ambulance will need to sit for up to 30 minutes waiting for the train to pass.

The one thing I wanted to make sure the Benicia Planning Commissioners knew was what the residents of Delaware City learned the hard way.  The City has no jurisdiction over the railroads.  Although the City can pass legislation, only allowing two trains, of less than 30 cars, a day they cannot enforce it.

The Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA) of 1995 took away the majority of States rights to govern the railroads.  Therefore, a city, state, county, etc. has absolutely no say in how many trains pass through each day. 

In Southern California, the South Coast Air Quality Management District tried to limit rail activities in 2009, claiming that Union Pacific Railroad needed to do more to protect the air quality.  Union Pacific actually sued the Air District and won in federal court.

Have the oil companies found a jackpot here?

Many of the environmentalist that I know are going to great lengths to make sure that the Keystone pipeline does not go through.  In the meantime, the oil companies are finding a much easier route to make sure that they can get their hands on heavy crude from Canada.

Image from National Geographic

The problem isn’t the pipeline or the railroads.  The problem is tar sands!  It doesn’t matter how we transport it – we don’t need it in our refineries.  We’re in the midst of a critical time for our climate: why do we continue to go in the wrong direction?  From climate change and global warming to the health and safety of our community, there’s no room for tar sands crude.  It’s time to broaden the pipeline/rail debate and unite together in saying NO TAR SANDS, AT ALL!

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