When I went to Traverse City, Mich., this past March to visit my grandparents, I was amazed by the beauty of Old Mission Peninsula. The green and orange leaves of the apple and cherry orchards line a landscape of rolling hills that provided me with a 360-degree view of Grand Traverse Bay. Rustic, red farmhouses and 19th century cottages made the landscape even more idyllic. The Old Mission Lighthouse that sits at the tip of the peninsula gave me a view of Lake Michigan that stretched over the horizon. Few places, outside of national parks, have such awe-inspiring vistas. Dotting the yards of the homes lying on the lakefront, a bright green yard-sign managed to draw my attention away from the sweeping sight. The sign called for an end to the Line 5 oil pipeline, which transports crude oil through Michigan and into Canada: a topic I had heard about enough in my classes to have formed a knowledgeable opinion. 

Run by Enbridge Inc., this pipeline has already leaked up to a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. The section of the pipeline that worries the citizens of the Grand Traverse Bay area is located on the floor of Lake Michigan as it snakes its way across the straits of Mackinac. Due to repeated damage from anchoring vessels in recent years and the risk of a disastrous oil spill, there has been a push to shut down the pipeline. This reached a fever pitch soon after my trip, when Attorney General Dana Nessel filed a motion to shut down the pipeline, continuing a years-long battle between Michigan and Enbridge. This challenge is just another example of the widespread pushback that often confronts oil pipelines and the risks that come with them. 

Opposition against pipelines has taken various forms, with northern Michiganders being able to express their will using political influence. Tribal nations standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline have faced physical violence in their fight against pollution. Police even shot protestors with water cannons to induce hypothermia on freezing nights. People do not want rivers of oil running through their communities, despite pipelines actually being the safest method of oil transportation,  because no matter which form oil is moved in, it will always threaten our environment and our communities. Even so, the worrisome effects of pipelines pale in comparison to the deadly consequences of their railway alternative. 

In 1951, deep under the plains of North Dakota, over 18 billion barrels’ worth of crude oil was discovered. Unable to extract it due to technology limitations, these Bakken shale oil fields sat dormant for the remainder of the century. In 2008, however, a new method of drilling, hydraulic fracking, allowed the once inaccessible oil to be extracted with relative ease. This sparked the “North Dakota Oil Boom” which made North Dakota the second largest oil producer in the United States by 2015. Oil companies decided to use the nation’s railways to transport the immense amount of crude oil being extracted to coastal refineries — in 2008, there were 9,500 rail cars moving crude oil, and by 2014 there were over 400,000.

DOT-11 tanker cars, many developed to transport corn syrup, were often loaded full of thousands of gallons of highly flammable crude oil and shipped through American cities. With such a rapid acceleration in the usage of this new means of oil transportation, little oversight was applied to the dubious practice. Overall, derailments of these tankers have caused over 3,272 evacuations, spilled almost 2.8 million gallons of oil and cost an estimated $45 million in damages and cleanup. Oil train derailments, however, can have even more deadly consequences, as it is not only a risky way to transport the material, but also utilizes trains which are not designed for products this flammable. When a tanker is breached, massive fire spouts erupt that burn for days and often ignite the other tanks around them in a fiery chain reaction. The explosive potential of this concoction of natural gas and oil parallels even the most brutal weapons of war. 

On a late summer night in 2013, 72 DOT-11 tank cars filled with Bakken shale oil derailed in the center of the city of Lac-Megantic, Canada, exhibiting this destructive potential. A crowded bar was pulverized instantly by the blast as 27 tank cars ran off the tracks at around 60 miles per hour, killing 47 people. The city was consumed by this inferno for days as firefighters waited helplessly for the oil to finish burning. The loss of 100,000 liters of oil into local rivers also left a toxic aftermath that is still confronting the town to this day.

While this pushed Canada’s government to pass regulations regulating DOT-11 tank cars, these cars are still allowed to travel throughout the U.S. with no extra safety precautions until 2023. The black tanker cars that stream into many major American cities on a daily basis, from Chicago to Omaha, Neb., are disasters waiting to happen. Oil transportation providing a wide variety of unsavory and deadly consequences is yet another reason that our dependency on fossil fuels must be curbed. 

When I made my way into downtown Ann Arbor after my trip to Old Mission Peninsula, I saw a line of black oil tankers sitting on the railroad tracks near the Big House. I wondered, if the people of Ann Arbor knew about the potential infernos being shipped through town, would they too have yard signs calling for their banning? With each tanker capable of causing massive explosions in any of the cities they roll through, some of America’s most densely populated cities are at risk of a fiery, industrial disaster. While railroad companies and Republican legislators may be fine with hoping for the best until 2023, with the string of bad luck this new decade has already wrought, that’s not a bet I would like to take.

Riley Dehr can be reached at rdehr@umich.edu.

 

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