LNG Transport Proposal Flags Worries Over Rail Hazmat

September 16, 2020
Rail hazmat safety failures can and do kill people. Above, the fire from a runaway oil train in 2013 killed 47 people in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic. Photo: Transportation Safety Board of Canada, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: LNG Transport Proposal Flags Worries Over Rail Hazmat

By Joseph A. Davis

The Trump administration raised alarm earlier this year with a proposal to allow transport of liquified natural gas, or LNG, by rail in the United States. 

Since LNG can be explosive, objections to the proposal came immediately from many states and a federal agency responsible for rail safety. 

As a result, the Trump LNG-by-rail proposal won’t become reality until — or unless — it surmounts a series of court challenges. 

One lawsuit was filed Aug. 18 by 14 states and the District of Columbia. Another similar suit was filed at the same time by a coalition of environmental groups, led by litigation specialists at Earthjustice.

But whether or not the LNG proposal goes through, the larger issue of transportation of hazardous materials by rail is a fertile source of stories for environmental reporters from the local to the national level.


Why LNG by rail matters

While most natural gas from fracking moves over land in the U.S. today via pipeline, the glut of gas in the United States has driven down prices and motivated the industry to develop export markets (although there’s also a glut on the world market).     

But moving LNG via rail is especially hazardous. Mostly methane, it is refrigerated until it becomes liquid. Both refrigeration and a closed pressure vessel (a tank car) are needed to keep it stable. If refrigeration fails, or the pressure vessel fails, the LNG boils into gaseous form, creates more pressure, and may well explode in a huge fireball. 

According to the environmental group Earthjustice, a string of 22 LNG tank cars could explode with the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. A “unit train” of 110 cars would explode five times more powerfully.

Right now, under federal regulations, LNG can only be transported by rail under special conditions. But in October 2019, the Trump Transportation Department proposed a rule to authorize much wider rail transport of LNG for the first time, without new safety requirements. 

Objecting to the Trump LNG proposal were, among others, the National Transportation Safety Board, the National Association of State Fire Marshals and a coalition of 16 states.

The comment period on that proposal closed Jan. 13; the final rule was published July 24 with hopes it would take effect Aug. 24. Now, little is likely to happen until courts decide.


The backstory on rail hazmat

The recent LNG train controversy is a reminder that all kinds of hazardous materials go by rail through many U.S. communities, and that many of the threats they present get little coverage. That is your opportunity.   

Rail hazmat safety failures can and do kill people. One memorable recent disaster was the fire from a runaway oil train in 2013, which incinerated much of the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic and killed 47 people. 

Oil trains got a lot of attention in the following years as subsequent derailments caused other deadly fires. And they still make news as states and localities struggle to deal with the safety problems, environmental threats and economic opportunities they may present.

Much of rail hazmat transportation is regulated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, and the Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA. Both agencies are within the Transportation Department. Many other agencies are also involved, such as the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

The flurry of concern after 2013 highlighted one key point: The design of particular railcars to minimize danger from particular cargoes is important. But while the FRA has given some attention to safer crude oil tankers, other hazmats may have gotten less notice.


One hazardous material of special concern is chlorine.

Tank cars typically hold 90 tons of chlorine, enough to 

kill tens of thousands in a densely populated area.


One hazardous material of special concern is chlorine. Chlorine is a gas that is shipped in compressed, liquid form. When a tank car ruptures, the liquid gasifies and escapes, hugging the ground as it spreads. Cars typically hold 90 tons of chlorine, enough to kill tens of thousands in a densely populated area.

Anhydrous ammonia is both boon and bane. It is commonly used as an agricultural fertilizer and as a refrigerant in large food operations. But it is also a toxic inhalation hazard, potentially deadly in a spill or leak. It is shipped by rail in the form of a liquified, compressed gas, which is unstable if a tank car fails.

Crude oil (especially the more volatile kind that comes from tar sands) can burn and explode in a railcar crash. Many such incidents happened after 2013. 

Ethanol, to a Midwestern corn farmer, is like green money. But when a long string of ethanol cars derail, the resulting fire can be quite dangerous.

If you look around and use your imagination, you will find other hazmats that are shipped by rail: propane (sometimes called LP gas) and butane, nuclear waste, corrosives like hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, and many more exotic chemicals, which are often feedstocks being moved from one place to another.


Story ideas

  • Find the major rail freight routes and destinations in your area. Maps like this can help. 
  • Go to the actual track locations and observe what you can. When do major freight trains come through? Identify typical cargoes by spotting “UN numbers” on tank cars. What threats would any hazmats present?
  • What industries in your area produce, transship or consume hazmats that are shipped by rail? What are the hazards of railcars full of those materials? Where are the cars stored or parked before they are unloaded or after they are loaded? What is the level of physical security around those cars?
  • What populations, in what density, are near the rail hazmat activities in your area? Are they particularly vulnerable (nursing homes, daycares, etc.)? Are they well-enough organized politically to resist hazards?
  • What environmental or natural resources are near the rail hazmat activities in your area? Streams, lakes, wetlands, estuaries, etc. Are they adequately protected from a potential spill or release?


Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheetReporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 33. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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