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Yet Another Oil Bomb Train Explosion Marks Fourth Derailment in Four Weeks
Once again this weekend, we saw scenes of tanker cars strewn across the landscape on their sides emitting huge billows of smoke and fire. On Saturday a 94-car train carrying Alberta tar sands oil derailed two miles outside Gogama, Ontario, with at least 35 cars going off the rails and at least seven igniting. Five cars landed in the Makami River, prompting a warning to residents not to drink the water as well as to stay inside to avoid possible toxic effects from the fire.
It follows fiery derailments of the so-called oil bomb trains carrying volatile crude oil that have occurred in Illinois, West Virginia and Ontario since the beginning of the year. In each of those cases, only about half a dozen cars derailed, making the Gogama derailment the biggest so far this year.
Gogama is about 60 miles north of the remote, unpopulated area outside Timmins, Ontario where a derailment occurred Feb. 14. And while Gogama itself is remote, it's not unpopulated: the town has almost 400 residents and the nearby Mattagami First Nation community, and it's a major center of outdoor tourism. The tracks the train was traveling go through the town, raising the specter of another tragedy like the one that killed 47 people and leveled much of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013.
"It’s frightening and nerve-wracking, especially after what happened in Quebec," Roxanne Veronneau, owner of the Gogama Village Inn, told the Toronto Star. "People here are on pins and needles. The tracks run right through town. I’m sure that there’s going to be a lot of talk afterward that this shouldn’t be in the middle of our town."
Mattagami chief Walter Naveau told northern Ontario news outlet Village Media that he had met with representatives from CN, the company whose train derailed and wasn't comfortable with their reassurances.
“They’re saying it’s okay, and yet why are some of my band members feeling it in their chests and tasting it in their mouths?” said Naveau. "I’m very angry at CN right now, to put it mildly."
He said he was concerned about the potential impact of oil spilling into the river. "The water is coming our way and that’s going to harm our fish habitat and tourist habitat,” he said.
"Anywhere you’re going to see a major spill of oil and chemicals onto the ground you’re going to see permanent contamination of the ecosystem nearby,” Adam Scott, climate and energy program manager for Canadian nonprofit advocacy group Environmental Defence, told Canada's National Post. “They almost never are able to clean up all of the oil released in a spill like this and it’s much worse even when there’s a direct spill into a river because the oil gets moved down the river and the chemicals can spread.”
Quite horrific to see first hand. pic.twitter.com/h1Cr3naRIG
— Glenn Thibeault (@GlennThibeault) March 8, 2015
Each derailment suggests we're a little closer to another Lac-Mégantic—or worse.
A recent study from the Center for Biological Diversity called Runaway Risks found that, with the 40-fold increase in rail cars carrying oil since 2008, 25 million people now live within a mile of tracks carrying these dangerous trains.
"Before one more derailment, fire, oil spill and one more life lost, we need a moratorium on oil trains and we need it now,” said Center for Biological Diversity senior scientist Mollie Matteson. “The oil and railroad industries are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives and our environment, and the Obama administration needs to put a stop to it. Today we have another oil train wreck in Canada, while the derailed oil train in Illinois is still smoldering. Where’s it going to happen next? Chicago? Seattle? The Obama administration has the power to put an end to this madness and it needs to act now because quite literally, people’s lives are on the line.”
While both Transport Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have proposed new safety regulations for oil trains, including phasing out the old puncture-prone DOT-111 oil tankers, many of the recent derailment fires, including the one in Gogama, involved the new and supposedly safer CPC 1232 cars. And the industry is lobbying for a longer time frame in which to phase out the old cars.
"The cars involved in this incident are new models, compliant with the latest federal regulations, yet they still failed to prevent this incident,” said Glenn Thibeault, who represents the Gogama area in the Ontario legislature.
"It's basically guaranteed to happen again; this is not an isolated incident," Scott told The Star. "So until something dramatic is done, we're going to see this continuing over and over again."
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Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
- Is California heading for another drought? - Los Angeles Times ›
- CA wildfire season: Will rain, snow weather forecast end risk? | The ... ›
- California Fires Now Rage All Year as Drought Creates Tinderbox ... ›
- California weather stays dry as rain and snow come up short | The ... ›
- California Emerged From Drought and Is Still Catching Fire - The ... ›
A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?