Last week, a train carrying highly combustible oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota derailed in West Virginia, causing 27 tank cars to go off the tracks with several tankers catching fire or exploding. Mushroom clouds following the derailment polluted the sky, sending the surrounding community into a state of panic. Hundreds of families were evacuated from the aptly-named Mount Carbon area, and two water treatment plants were shut down.
There are many unknowns about the accident, including how long it may take to clean up the area. Each of the 27 tank cars could have been carrying up to 30,000 gallons of crude. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for two West Virginian counties, and shelters had to be opened to accommodate those evacuated.
Given the dangerous nature of oil transport, older rail cars more prone to leaks are being replaced with newer tank cars with thicker shells. Unfortunately, this disaster involved those upgraded and supposedly safer cars, highlighting the high degree of danger involved in transporting oil.
On the other side of the country, an explosion last Wednesday at an ExxonMobil oil refinery in Torrance, California injured four individuals and sent ash and gas odors into the surrounding air. Nearby residents initially associated the explosion with an earthquake, which Caltech officials estimated was equivalent to a magnitude-1.7 earthquake.
These accidents happen all too often and underscore how dangerous all aspects of the oil lifecycle can be. From drilling to transport to refining and ultimate burning of oil, each step along the way presents unique and severe dangers to both the environment and public alike.
As the two accidents from last week unfold, we cannot help but remember the events of the BP oil spill disaster. Millions of gallons of oil entered the marine environment, which continue to devastate Gulf communities and marine life nearly five years later. The only way to ensure that accidents associated with drilling, transporting, refining and burning of fossil fuels are eliminated is to transition to renewable energies. Only then can we safeguard ourselves against these seemingly endless disasters.