A group of environmental organizations led by the nonprofit EarthJustice is suing the Trump administration for relaxing federal rules governing the transport of liquefied natural gas by rail. The plaintiff groups allege that the stripped-down rules could see the creation of “bomb trains” with the explosive force to level entire cities in the event of an accident.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have filed a separate lawsuit to stop the new rule and declare it unlawful. Both the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Association of State Fire Marshalls oppose it as well.

A parade of atomic bombs

According to EarthJustice, “It would only take 22 tank cars to hold the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb. A train of 110 tank cars filled with liquefied natural gas would have five times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb.”

With an extensive underground pipeline distribution system to safely transport natural gas already in place, why is the Trump administration rolling back the safety regulations?

Nobody really knows. According to Popular Mechanics, detractors say that allowing bomb trains to pass through cities and neighborhoods “represents a negligible, symbolic gain in exchange for a totally unnecessary danger.”

The most likely answer is that certain companies and their owners stand to make a lot of money from the new rule, which was scheduled to take effect Aug. 24 barring the legal challenges.

Current rules shaped by disasters

It’s important to understand that these lawsuits don’t represent “environmental paranoia or general outrage at the fossil fuel industry, either.” The current rules, informed by actual disasters, recognized that hauling liquefied natural gas in tank cars by rail is simply too hazardous.

One of the most notorious accidents involving liquified natural gas occurred in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1944 when a square mile of the city was obliterated, killing 131 people and injuring countless others. The disaster was caused when liquified natural gas leaked from a tank storage facility and flowed into the city’s sewer system.

Something ignited the natural gas, triggering multiple massive explosions, blowing up buildings and streets in giant fireballs that reached 3,000°F. One of the explosions left a crater 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 25 feet deep.

Even trains hauling less explosive crude oil are notoriously hazardous and controversial, so it makes little sense to allow highly explosive liquified natural gas to move through our cities and towns. In July 2013, an unattended 74-car freight train hauling crude oil derailed in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada and exploded. The blasts and fires killed 47 people, five of whom were never found, injured scores of others, and destroyed more than 30 buildings.

The new rule doesn’t just allow liquified natural gas to be hauled by rail, it allows the trains to adhere to a voluntary 50 mph speed limit when it’s known that a 30 mph speed limit would spell disaster. The trains would also be allowed to travel through populated areas instead of being routed through rural unpopulated areas.

Toxic Exposure

Beasley Allen lawyers in our Toxic Torts Section work to protect people and property from toxic chemicals and environmental pollution that results from negligence and wrongful conduct, as well as property damage resulting from disasters like spills and explosions. Our lawyers are currently investigating water contamination as a result of PFC chemicals. If you have any questions, contact Rhon Jones, Rick Stratton, or Ryan Kral, lawyers in the Section. We often represent state and municipal governments in litigation of this type.

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