Since 2009, the domestic energy boom has reaped rich rewards for communities large and small throughout the nation and in our region. Companies involved in producing oil and natural gas, in manufacturing steel pipe for the drilling industry and in transporting goods to refineries, markets and ports all have enjoyed exponential growth.
In the transportation sector alone, that growth has been phenomenal. U.S. rail companies, for example, hauled more than 400,000 carloads of crude oil in 2013, compared with only 9,500 in 2008, according to the Association of American Railroads. The trucking industry has posted similarly amazing growth.
As with all facets of the robust oil and natural gas industry, the rewards in decreasing unemployment, assisting cash-strapped local governments and in making America more energy-independent do not come without significant risks. Those risks demand airtight regulation to ensure minimal threats to public health and safety. Sadly, such regulation is lacking.
The most vivid example of the potential scope of that threat played out 700 miles northeast of Youngstown last July in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. There, a train carrying shale oil from the Bakken play in North Dakota exploded, killing 47 and leveling the resort town of 6,000 people, a town only slightly smaller than Canfield.
Three weeks ago, three employees of the Montral, Maine and Atlantic Railway that operated in the U.S. and Canada were charged with criminal negligence — more than 11 months after the disaster. A lack of clear and firm regulations governing transit of hazardous materials played a role in that unseemly delay.
THREAT IN OHIO
Closer to home, the dangers of transit accidents involving hazardous materials looms large. According to a recent four-month investigation by The Cincinnati Enquirer, Ohio ranks first in the nation in transportation accidents involving hazardous materials, with nearly 13,000 such incidents reported in the past 10 years.
Fortunately, none has been as serious or as deadly as the Lac-Magentic catastrophe — yet.
“We are at our capacity on the highways and in many ways on the railroads as well,” said Richard R. Young, a professor of supply-chain management for Penn State University. “This has meant a perfect storm for potential accidents.”
Many authorities explain the rapid rise in such accidents to the increase in shipments of crude oil pulled from shale oil fields, including the Marcellus and Utica plays in our region of the country, coupled with lethargy by federal and state regulators.
For example, six months ago, the National Transportation Safety Board urged the Federal Railroad Administration audit all trains to “ensure they are properly classifying hazardous materials in transportation and that they have adequate safety and security plans in place.”
Unfortunately, however, NTSB lacks enforcement power and its legitimate request has fallen on deaf ears.
In the trucking industry, safety concerns appear to be rolling backwards. Truck drivers hauling hazardous materials will face fewer regulations under new rules from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a move that will save trucking outfits an estimated $16 million annually.
Clearly, profits for haulers must never upstage safety for the public. That’s why state and federal transportation agencies should initiate a top-to-bottom review of hazardous-material transit with a goal of implementing stringent and consistent standards to minimize accidents and maximize public safety.
In the absence of such action, a prediction of environmental law professor David Cassuto of a disaster on the scale of Lac-Magentic in the U.S. may well become reality: “It’s not a question of if it will happen, but when and how bad.”