By: Paula Rogovin, co-founder, Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains.
When a reporter from our regional newspaper, The Bergen Record, first wrote that volatile Bakken crude oil was being transported over the Oradell Reservoir and through 11 towns in Bergen County, I was scared. My home is near those tracks. I reached out to friends, family and other community members. Six of us gathered for a demonstration alongside the CSX River Line under Route 4 in Teaneck NJ in August, 2014. We thought the big problem was the DOT 111 tank cars carrying the Bakken crude, the same cars that exploded into a fire bomb and left 47 people dead during a derailment in Lac Megantic, Quebec in 2013. We formed the Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains.
That November, 2014, we demonstrated again, calling for better tank cars, only to find that the “improved” DOT1237 tank cars were also derailing and exploding into fire bombs which could not be extinguished.
What’s wrong with transporting Bakken crude? Scott Smith, a scientist with Water Defense, put it this way at a forum we held last September. Imagine shaking, then opening a bottle of water representing ordinary crude oil and another bottle of coca-cola representing Bakken crude. Nothing would happen with the water. The cola would spray wildly, as would the Bakken crude. Any spark during a derailment would create a fire bomb, thus the name “bomb trains.”
As we organized we had a rude awakening – interstate trains are regulated by the Federal government. The long-time cozy relationship between Congress and the oil and rail companies has meant lax regulations and almost no transparency. Rail companies inspect the tracks and rail bridges and report to no one unless reports are specifically requested by state officials. The companies have been given nearly a decade to replace the substandard tank cars. Getting improvements would be tough.
Building on the momentum of our first public actions, we teamed up with Food & Water Watch and over a dozen other organizations in NJ for our largest demonstration to date: The Danger Zone March, where hundreds walked along the tracks through our communities, rallying at schools, a fire station, and other vulnerable locations. We highlighted the risks of these “bomb-trains” crossing a substandard bridge over the Oradell Reservoir, which provides drinking water for 800,000 people in Bergen County. These same “bomb-trains” stop in Bogota and Teaneck where they idle day and night spewing carcinogenic diesel exhaust next to schools and homes.
Since it’s founding our Coalition has grown to nearly 40 community and environmental groups. More than 25 million people live in the blast zone in NJ, one-half mile on either side of the tracks with trains carrying Bakken crude oil. Last November, groups like ours which had sprung up along these rail lines all throughout the country met in Pittsburg to share our struggles and link our local resistance.
From North Dakota, where Bakken crude oil is fracked, to the railroads, pipelines, and barges which transport it to refineries in the U.S. or around the world, to the many places which use the products from the oil, people and our environment at great risk. Now, while we are working with legislators and regulators to improve rail safety and transparency, we are also calling for an immediate ban on Bakken crude oil. It’s just too dangerous.
Some critics have scolded, “Well, you need the oil. You can’t live without it.” Our answer is that we can’t live with it. The damage to our environment from fracking for oil and other fossil fuels is too great. Instead we need a rapid transition to wind, solar, water and other clean and safe renewable energy. This transition is already happening, and at a faster pace than anyone imagined. We can make it happen even faster.
On July 24th our Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil trains, partnering with Food & Water Watch and a host of other organizations, will board buses in Paramus, Mahwah, Bloomfield and Newark NJ to participate in the March for a Clean Energy Revolution. We will march with thousands of others to demand that the Democratic Party adopt a platform to ban fracking, keep fossil fuels in the ground, and hasten the transition to a renewable economy. We invite others to join us in this important moment in our movement for a safe and healthy future.