This commentary is by David Bond, who teaches at Bennington College, and by Bennington College students August Schnell, Clio Riznyk and Miri Bloom.
Once again, Vermont Rail is renting out our backyards as a cheap parking lot for dangerous oil trains.
For the past five years, autumn has brought an unwelcome gift: a long string of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) tankers parked on neglected rail lines snaking through residential neighborhoods.
Our class at Bennington College has been researching this issue and what might be done about it. What we have learned leaves us deeply disturbed by the danger lurking just out of sight in our community.
Each Department of Transportation 112 tanker contains approximately 33,700 gallons of “pressurized, nonodorized liquid petroleum,” an extraordinarily explosive gas. This summer, over 60 LPG tankers rolled through downtown North Bennington, then parked behind Lake Paran next to homes on Rice Lane.
How much danger do these oil trains pose? According to Earth Justice, the 60 LPG tankers in Bennington contain the explosive power of roughly three Hiroshima atomic bombs.
Although Vermont Rail seems to hope no one will notice this immense risk to the community, residents living near the train are alarmed by its presence. As one resident of Rice Lane commented, “If anything’s going to happen, it’s going to happen to us.”
Scott Foucher, another resident, voiced his frustration with the oil tankers sitting at the edge of his property. “I think there's plenty of tracks where they could be, where it wouldn't bother us. I don't even understand the (point) of having them here. I mean, what if?”
The “what if’s” are far from hypothetical. In the past few years, two oil trains derailed in our region: one on the outskirts of Hoosick Falls in 2019 and one near downtown North Bennington in 2020. Both incidents narrowly averted sending fully loaded LPG tankers careening down steep embankments.
So far, our community has avoided the inferno of a ruptured LPG tanker. Other communities have not been so lucky.
Just before midnight in June 2009, a train containing 14 LPG tankers derailed while entering the Italian village of Viareggio. After one tanker flipped over, LPG poured into the village for a few moments before the petroleum cloud ignited. The blast leveled two city blocks and, according to investigators, carbonized children. Although only two of the 14 LPG tankers exploded, 32 people were killed, and many more were severely injured.
The Viareggio incident left scientists perplexed by the instantaneous enormity of an LPG blast: “There is no time to apply any protective emergency plans/actions.”
Although accidents involving LPG-laden DOT-112 tankers are infrequent, when they do occur, the resulting disaster overwhelms emergency responders. As firefighters learned when they rushed to the scene of an LPG derailment in rural Pennsylvania in 2017, there is no way to fight an LPG tanker fire, let alone extinguish it. Cascading explosions prevented efforts to establish an incident command center, so firefighters focused instead on evacuating residents, leaving the fire to burn itself out over the course of several days.
The profound difficulty of containing LPG fires is well known. In 2019, local residents asked Vermont Secretary of Transportation Joe Flynn what plans were in place to effectively respond to a ruptured LPG tanker. “We don't have a plan for that. That would be catastrophic,” Flynn responded.
According to the Association of American Railroads, the amount of oil and petroleum products shipped on trains rose 50-fold in the past decade. This exponential uptick of oil trains has strained aging railway infrastructure and outdated regulations for shipping hazardous materials.
The risks of oil trains were not widely publicized until the Lac-Mégantic disaster in 2013, when an oil train derailed in a Canadian village. The explosion flattened much of the downtown area and killed 47 people.
Although Lac-Mégantic seized headlines, very little changed. And from Casselton, North Dakota, to Montgomery, West Virginia, to Custer, Washington, oil train derailments and explosions have rattled the continent with alarming frequency every year since. In 2015, the federal government said it anticipates roughly 10 oil train derailments a year until 2034.
In consideration of these risks, many environmental groups now refer to these oil tankers as “bomb trains.”
Why are these dangerous trains allowed to remain in our community? The answer lies in a loophole in transportation laws called “federal preemption.”
Federal preemption prevents cities and states from passing laws that can interfere with interstate commerce. Trains on rail lines are considered “in-transit,” meaning they are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government.
For oil trains, this means that cities and states are unable to address the new risks oil trains introduce to their communities.
For example, after an oil train derailment and explosion narrowly avoided incinerating a middle school, Washington State mandated new safety requirements for oil trains moving through densely populated areas. Federal lawyers quickly overturned this policy, stating that “a state cannot use safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth.”
In other words, profit from interstate commerce outweighs protecting the public.
In Vermont, the threat of federal preemption undercuts any attempt to address the risks of oil trains parked in our community. In the absence of safeguards, Bennington residents continue to shoulder all the risks of LPG trains while gaining nothing. No new jobs are created for our town, no new tax revenue flows into our municipal budget, and no new investments are made to the volunteer fire departments that will respond if something goes wrong.
Yet a key question remains unanswered. Do parked trains really qualify as in-transit? Our class is researching this question and talking to federal and state agencies, and what we are learning suggests the Bennington Selectboard can make simple updates to zoning that would prohibit the parking of these dangerous oil trains in our neighborhoods. Stay tuned.