Why Everyone Should Care About This Exploding Train

Photo: AP Images.
Yesterday, a train derailed in West Virginia — and exploded. It was carrying more than 100 tons of crude oil, and it burst into flames after going off the rails outside of Charleston. Miraculously, no one was killed, though hundreds were evacuated and one man was hospitalized.

Social media users were understandably alarmed by the magnitude of the fire, and photos of the incident quickly spread — looking more like a scene from an action film than anything else. The crash, which could contaminate the entire local water supply, is more than just a West Virginia-specific disaster: It's a reminder that we still have not figured out a safe way to transport oil.

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The fire isn't an isolated event, either: Another derailment happened just days earlier in Canada, and last August a train exploded in Virginia. Events like these are only increasing in frequency as more and more oil is shipped via rail. And, it's not just trains that are letting oil loose — a cursory search finds more than two dozen oil pipeline leaks in 2014 alone. It's clear that as much as we need oil, its unsafe transportation is putting us all at risk. That's why the Keystone XL bill, which President Obama is expected to veto this week, is the opposite of a good idea.

The proposed pipeline has been a source of contention among politicians and environmentalists for years. It all started when a Canadian company called TransCanada expressed its desire to build a pipeline that would transport about 800,000 barrels per day of dirty tar-sand oil (The New York Times called it “some of the dirtiest fuel on the planet”) from western Canada to oil refineries and ports on the American Gulf Coast. Environmentalists, scientists, and economists — plus regular-old sane people who read the news — called out the proposal as a ticking time bomb. It could increase the amount of oil spills along the proposed route, causing damage to both our waterways and our climate, and it would likely prompt a rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

But, that isn't stopping Congress. Last week, the House gave the final okay to a bill that approves construction of the pipeline. Lawmakers voted 270-152 for the bill, just short of the two thirds that would have been necessary to override the president’s near-certain veto.

The President hasn't said he opposes the pipeline overall — just that he doesn't want to sign the bill until a State Department study of its safety is finished. Which seems like a good idea. If you need more convincing that we should be really sure it's safe, just take another look at those pics.

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