NEW YORK —
"Oil isn't scary at all," says Mayor Richard Gerbounka of Linden, N.J., home of Phillips 66's Bayway Refinery. Even if the mayor did think it was scary, he wouldn't be able to stop it — local officials do not have the power to restrict rail traffic.
Experts say there are two main dangers when transporting crude and ethanol:
— Volume. When commodities are shipped, they are often assembled into so-called "unit trains" that have up to 100 cars all containing the same substance. These unit trains can make for enormous concentrations of hazardous material — up to 3 million gallons of oil or ethanol in a single train.
In contrast, when dangerous chemicals such as chlorine or anhydrous ammonia are shipped, they usually represent just one or two cars in a train of many other cargos such as auto parts or lumber. "One tank car of phosphoric acid doesn't pose that same kind of risk," says Bob Chipkevich, a former director of railroad, pipeline and hazardous materials investigations at the National Transportation Safety Board.
— Weak tank cars. The safety of the typical train cars that carry crude and ethanol, known as DOT-111 cars, has been called into question by the NTSB since a 1991 study. When trains do derail, these cars have been shown to fail at a high rate.
In 2009 a train carrying 2 million gallons of ethanol through Cherry Valley, Ill., derailed. Of the 15 cars that piled up, 13 failed and sparked a massive fire that killed a woman waiting at a nearby railroad crossing. In a 2006 ethanol train derailment and fire in New Brighton, Pa., 20 of 23 derailed cars released ethanol. The cars that derailed in Lac-Megantic were DOT-111 cars.
"You can expect them to fail," Chipkevich says. "They need to be improved."