Yesterday I got an email alert from Credo Action asking me to sign a petition to the Department of Transportation to protect American communities from dangerous oil trains. One paragraph grabbed my attention:
Astonishingly, federal regulators have known since 1991 that the most common railway tanker car – known as the DOT-111 – is prone to rupture and explode during derailments. Yet regulators have just sat on their hands.
I was horrified. Since 1991, big money interests have lulled regulators into forgetting the tragedy in Waverly, Tennessee on February 24, 1978. This was the tragedy that inspired President Carter to form the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Since I was employed in property/casualty insurance loss prevention and engineering, this horrific explosion was a major topic of conversation. Every insurer in Middle Tennessee had some claims resulting from the tragedy, which killed at least 11 people, badly injured 145, and destroyed 16 downtown buildings. Homes in the area where the train derailed had been evacuated, but nobody thought about businesses.
Here is the basic story as I remember hearing it discussed. A train including a tanker car of liquid petroleum gas had derailed in Waverly on February 22. This tanker car had overturned, and the fire chief kept fire department hose streams on it while the railroad sent for a contractor to right the car and offload its contents. Everybody thought this tanker car was double walled, but it was only single walled, and there was no immediate smell of gas around it. When the contracting crew arrived, the fire chief asked its supervisor if he should keep the hoses on it while they worked. The supervisor said no, his men didn’t want to have to work in mud. (This was an oral account from an insurance inspector.)
What IS certain is that shortly after work began, the tank exploded. Technically, this was a BLEVE – a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion. As UPI reported at the time,
A derailed tank car loaded with 2,000 gallons of propane exploded in “a ball of fire” Friday when workmen began to drain it, hurling burning bodies into the air and setting downtown Waverly afire.
Naturally, many regulatory changes were put in place, and the incident has been used as a teaching tool for the last 30 years. But now – with money to be made moving tar sands oil fast and cheaply – this lesson is conveniently forgotten. Remember, friends, MONEY TRUMPS PUBLIC SAFETY EVERY TIME.