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What To Do With Railroad Tank Cars That Are No Longer Safe Or Economical?


The oil industry and railroads are scrambling to answer a question. It's what to do with thousands of useless, old tank cars. They're no longer considered safe or efficient to operate. Many of these tank cars are crusted with oil, sludge and heavy metal. So what do you do with them? Railroads found an answer, and some people are not going to like it. Here's Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When you talk to people in the rail industry about oil tank cars, they use words like severe disruption and turmoil. It began two years ago when an American oil train carrying North Dakota crude derailed in Canada, rupturing and sending waves of fire through a Quebec village, captured here in a YouTube video.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

MANN: More than 40 people died. So this spring, after months of review, the U.S. Transportation Department ruled that as many as 100,000 tank cars known as DOT-111s, used for shipping toxic or explosive material, have to be upgraded or scrapped altogether - a $2 billion process that was meant to happen over a period of years. But then the oil industry ran headfirst into slumping oil prices, says David Thomas, contributing editor with the online journal Railway Age.

DAVID THOMAS: What they weren't expecting, of course, is for crude by rail to experience its own collapse as the price of oil plunged.

MANN: So now all those tank cars aren't just unsafe, they're also unneeded and unwanted. Companies are racing to take them out of service, which means that miles of old oil trains are winding up parked in places like this.

PETER BAUER: We're walking north on the section of the Sandford Lake Rail Line that's probably 75 feet from the Boreas river. We're surrounded by forest preserve on both sides.

MANN: Peter Bauer is with a group called Protect the Adirondacks. A company called Iowa Pacific Holdings has announced plans to store a five-mile long chain of oil tank cars right here in northern New York. The wrinkle is that this siding is located inside a protected area of the Adirondack Park. The Boreas River, a stone's throw from the track, is a pristine trout-stream that flows out of the High Peaks wilderness.

BAUER: We never anticipated a proposal that was going to use this line for storage of dirty oil tanker cars. That was nothing on anyone's horizon.

MANN: Bauer says railroads hoping to cash in by storing DOT-111s are creating what he calls rolling toxic waste sites parked in areas never approved for industrial use. But Ed Ellis, head of Iowa Pacific says the risk of these tank cars leaking or venting toxic fumes is minimal. And he says all those tank cars - as many as 60,000 that are already being taken out of service - have to go somewhere until they can be cleaned and repurposed.


ED ELLIS: One hundred cars is about a mile, give or take. So that means there's 600 miles of cars to go into storage.

MANN: The storage site in New York could generate a million dollars of revenue a year for Ellis's company. But it's not just the Adirondack Park that could be affected. At a public meeting this summer, Ellis announced that railroads owned by his company across the U.S. have already begun parking tank cars on little-used sections of track.


ELLIS: We have recently put three miles of cars into storage on our railroad in Colorado, and we know there are more coming.

MANN: Ellis's company owns track in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon and Texas where he says 10,000 obsolete oil tank cars may eventually be parked for months or years. He says transportation law allows railroads to store these trains without new safety or environmental reviews. Industry experts say other short-line railroads are also jumping into the storage business. State environment officials here in New York say they're concerned by Iowa Pacific's plan and are still deciding whether to intervene. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York's Adirondack Mountains. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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