Trains Carrying As Much Explosive Potential As An Atomic Bomb Are Traveling Through American Cities

On August 24, 2020, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), in coordination with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), amended the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR) to allow for the bulk transport of “Methane, refrigerated liquid,” commonly known as liquefied natural gas (LNG), in rail tank cars.

According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, these rail tank cars carry LNG at temperatures below -260 degrees Fahrenheit, with no special protections against rupture if a train derails.

When LNG is exposed to air it turns back into a highly-flammable gas. As Fortune reports, in a collision, LNG can easily erupt into an unquenchable fire.

Liquid natural gas is transported in cars that can keep the liquid at very low temperatures.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Liquid natural gas is transported in cars that can keep the liquid at very low temperatures.

“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” said Emily Jeffers, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “You’re transporting an extraordinarily flammable and dangerous substance through highly populated areas with basically no environmental protection.”

Detonating just 22 tank cars of LNG could produce the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb, Rolling Stone reports. In 1944 explosion in Cleveland killed more than 100 people after LNG from a storage tank seeped into the city’s sewer system and ignited, leveling homes and businesses across several city blocks.

The East Ohio gas explosion leveled a community and killed hundreds in 1944.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The East Ohio gas explosion leveled a community and killed hundreds in 1944.

According to Earthjustice, temperatures rose to 3,000°F in the explosions that followed, while entire streets blew up, with one explosion opening a crater 25 feet deep, 30 feet wide, and 60 feet long.”

In March 2019, a train moving propane in Utah derailed and leaked toxic products into the environment. Responders detonated the derailed cars in place. No humans were at risk of injury because the train was in a rural area, but the new regulations mean many LNG trains will be going through urban and suburban areas.

Watch the impact of an LNG car explosion in the video below.

The Trump Administration pushed this deregulation through the Department of Transportation in the summer of 2020, but EarthJustice argues that the Environmental Assessment submitted by the PHMSA yet lacks a full Environmental Impact Statement to address public safety and risks associated with the transportation of such a hazardous substance. Despite this and volumes of public comment and scientific research warning against the practice, LNG by rail pilot programs have been in operation in Alaska and Florida under Federal Railroad Administration permits since 2016. Moreover, LNG transportation in Florida takes hundreds of cars of gas through highly populated coastal areas, crossing highways and sharing routes with high-speed passenger trains.

Aftermath of the derailment of a freight train carrying liquid gas.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Aftermath of the derailment of a freight train carrying liquid gas.

The latest PHMSA assessment declined to require a similar risk research effort in approving LNG by rail, even though these trains would carry LNG on 100-car trains directly through densely populated, major U.S. cities.

As the Environmental and Energy Study Institute maintains, “PHMSA’s draft Environmental Assessment would subject virtually all major U.S. cities to the risk of an LNG by rail disaster, ignoring the long-standing industry practice of maintaining ‘protective distance’ from concentrated populations.”

LNG cars are currently being pulled through populated areas in Florida.
Source: Adobe Stock/Belish
LNG cars are currently being pulled through populated areas in Florida.

The Department of Transportation’s own Emergency Response Guidebook, which is used universally by North American fire and emergency services, advises that in the event of a breached refrigerated liquids transportation container, first responders should immediately isolate the scene for one mile in all directions. This would not be possible in any timely manner within a densely populated area. Further, the schedules of rail shipments are much easier tracked and targeted by terrorists than other means of transportation.

“It would be detrimental to public safety if PHMSA were to authorize the transportation of LNG by rail with unvalidated tank cars and lacking operational controls that are afforded other hazardous materials such as flammable liquids, as currently proposed in this NPRM,” concluded the National Transportation Safety Board.

The PHMSA’s assessment also ignores any greenhouse gas emission and environmental impacts required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The organization did not even request data from the permit applicant on how much greenhouse gas would be emitted if the permit were granted.

Several organizations have sued the Department of Transportation and PHMSA, alleging allowing LNG in rail shipments violates environmental regulations.
Source: Adobe Stock
Several organizations have sued the Department of Transportation and PHMSA, alleging allowing LNG in rail shipments violates environmental regulations.

The National Association of State Fire Marshals also urged PHMSA to “reconsider your proposed actions,” with “more study on the topic, the tank cars, and the safety systems in place…needed before such actions are taken.”

The Sierra Club echoed the sentiment.

“Not only has the Trump Administration attacked safety standards meant to protect us from these incidents, now they’re actively courting disaster by proposing to move even more explosive material through our communities. Even for an Administration that has long made it clear that they want to pull out all the stops to prop up the fossil fuel industry, this proposal represents a shocking willingness to put workers and families at risk for the benefit of corporate polluters,” the organization stated in a 2019 release.

A growing number of concerned individuals are taking action and demanding safer policies from the Department of Transportation and the PHMSA. Click the button below to join them in making a difference.

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