Columnist Johanna Neumann: Proposed gas rule is off the rails

  • In this Feb. 17, 2015 file photo, crew members walk near the scene of a train derailment near Mount Carbon, W.Va. AP

Published: 2/19/2020 3:19:17 PM

Like many of us in the Pioneer Valley, I live near train tracks. The walls of our farmhouse rumble when the nightly CSX goes by. My boys and I often stay a few extra minutes at Cushman Market & Cafe in North Amherst to catch a glimpse of the afternoon freighter.

Watching the trains go past, though, I can’t help but worry about what’s in those tanker cars. What would happen to our home or the places we love if there was an accident?

If a rule being considered by the federal government gets finalized, there will be even more cause for worry — it would allow tankers of liquefied gas to be transported via our nation’s railway lines.

The unfortunate reality is that, even with the best safety precautions, many train accidents and derailments occur every year. And depending on the cargo, these events can be calamitous. In 2013, a train carrying crude oil caused an explosion that killed 47 people and destroyed most of downtown Lac-Mégantic in Quebec. In the wake of that inferno, the U.S. government mandated stronger tank cars, better brakes and slower travel speeds for crude oil trains.

But just two years later, a crude oil train jumped the rails in Mount Carbon, West Virginia. The spill, explosions and fire destroyed one home, forced hundreds of families to evacuate, and temporarily shut down two nearby water treatment plants because of contamination concerns.

Liquefied gas can be just as volatile. In 2018, we watched in horror as 40 homes went up in flames on Massachusetts’ north shore because Columbia Gas mismanaged its pipelines. With smoke billowing into the sky from the burning homes around him, Andover’s fire chief said the neighborhoods “looked like an absolute war zone.”

Fifteen attorneys general, including Massachusetts’ Maura Healey, specifically cited concerns about gas explosions in comments filed in opposition to the proposed rule.

Aside from the obvious risk of explosions, the proposal to transport gas via rail could have other broader environmentally-destructive impacts.

America’s gas boom has been driven by two technologies — hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Combined, they have enabled the oil and gas industry to unlock gas from underground rock formations across the United States. Since 2005, at least 137,000 fracking wells have been drilled or permitted in more than 20 states.

The 2016 report “Fracking by the Numbers,” written by Frontier Group and Environment America Research & Policy Center, documents the widespread, startling impact of fracking. The process relies on toxic chemicals that harm our health; it destroys natural landscapes; and it depletes massive quantities of water while polluting our air. What’s more, the reinjection of fracking fluids into the ground has been linked to earthquakes, and it can contaminate drinking water supplies.

The climate impacts of fracking gas are also noteworthy. Bringing new fracked wells into production in 2014 released at least 5.3 billion pounds of methane, the equivalent to annual global warming emissions from 22 coal-fired power plants.

Recognizing the public safety and environmental dangers of gas, many Americans, including Bay Staters, have stood up against new gas infrastructure. Residents in West Roxbury were arrested because of their efforts to stop a new gas pipeline in their community. Thousands banded together to defeat the Kinder Morgan pipeline that would have cut through the Berkshires and the Hilltowns. Last year, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse opposed a new pipeline in his city. Activists on the South Shore of Massachusetts are still fighting a gas compressor station under construction in Weymouth.

This opposition has frustrated the gas industry, which repeatedly cites lack of transmission capacity as the biggest obstacle to bringing gas to market. Opening up the nation’s railway lines for transport would clear that hurdle at the expense of public safety and the environment.

The industry claims that gas is needed to supply consumer demand. Not only can improved efficiency and conservation measures reduce demand, but communities are now increasingly choosing to wean themselves off gas altogether. More than 20 California towns, including American’s 10th largest city, San Jose, have restricted new gas hookups by opting for all electric-homes powered by clean energy including solar.

Last year, Brookline became the first Massachusetts town to ban new natural gas hookups, and more than a dozen other Massachusetts communities are looking to follow suit.

Repowering America with 100 percent clean renewable energy is popular, doable and necessary. At a time when Americans are eager to advance clean renewable energy sources from the sun and wind, it’s beyond disappointing to see the federal government clear the way for more dirty and dangerous fossil fuels like gas.

If you agree, please join me in letting the Department of Transportation know by taking action.

If this rule moves forward, the midnight rumble of the CSX or waving to the engineer at Cushman will feel a lot less carefree.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at
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