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The recent oil train crash in Oregon has renewed calls for a ban on shipping crude by rail. But while calling for a ban on oil rail shipments might make for good politics, the reality is that such a ban is so impractical that proposals to do so are dead on arrival.
A more responsible approach is to ensure that emergency managers and first responders are adequately equipped and trained to handle accidents on the rare and unfortunate occasions when they do occur.
The Oregon accident made national headlines because it was such a rare event. Rail is one of the safest and most efficient modes of transporting oil and other hazardous materials. In 2014 alone, for example, freight rail carried more than 525,000 carloads of crude oil, and more than 99.99 percent of these shipments safely reached their destinations.
Despite the safe handling of rail oil shipping, the urge to restrict the shipping of hazardous materials after high-profile accidents — whether by rail, highway or waterway — is understandable. But while many Americans may not realize it, the efficient and safe movement of oil and other chemicals enables the quality of life comforts we take for granted.
Petroleum products such as oil also play an important role in manufacturing everyday products like crayons, water bottles and workout clothing – coated with chemicals to make them waterproof and breathable. Chemicals, like chlorine, make our tap water safe and provide us with fertilizers that help grow the fruits and vegetables we eat. All of it needs to be moved across the country, and rail is one of the safest ways to move it.
The answer to an oil train accident is not to ban rail shipments. It is preparedness and training. And that’s where we need continued commitment to provide such from the railroads and producers of hazardous materials moved across the country today.
For more than 30 years, Local Emergency Planning Committees composed of representatives of fire and emergency services, industry partners, civic organizations and media have worked together to identify and plan for incidents involving hazardous materials. These committees examine information about specific materials, transportation routes and hazards to develop specific and actionable plans tailored to individual communities.
Collaborative efforts between public emergency services and private industry ensure we consider every possible scenario, tweaking the response as we go, to create emergency response plans designed to work under the most extreme circumstances. The recent accident in Oregon is an example of the importance of preparation, as local and rail emergency managers quickly responded and effectively limited the impact to the surrounding area.
The freight rail industry understands this need to prepare and arm responders with information and is working with emergency managers and first responders across the country to enhance a smartphone app called AskRail. The app tells emergency responders who arrive on the scene of a rail accident what hazardous materials are being moved by the train so they can decide on what appropriate actions to take. The industry is constantly working to upgrade the app to provide more information that first responders need in an emergency.
Nobody is saying we should ignore these accidents. Each situation must be investigated and corrective actions applied. But it is important to remember that our nation’s vast shipping network, which includes hundreds of thousands of miles of highways, rail, waterways and airspace, is essential to our economy.
What is also essential is that we do all we can to keep these shipping networks safe and keep our attentions focused on preparedness and mitigating the impact of the rare but inevitable emergency.
Mark Chubb is a former president of the Institution of Fire Engineers, USA Branch and a retired chief fire officer. He is currently the chief resilience officer of ManitouNW LLC, a Seattle-based consulting firm that specializes in planning and public policy.