The Crude Awakening Project
Railroads played an important role in the way United States of America was formed. From stimulating the Industrial Revolution to determining the physical landscape, trains have left an unforgettable mark throughout the country. Although trains are still a reliable way to transport people and goods, little does one know that sometimes a train that is passing you by is a ticking time-bomb. One wrong move and an entire neighborhood would be set in flames.
On July 6, 2013, this nightmare became a reality for the small town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec. As people were heading off to bed, a train left unattended a few miles away was loaded with thousands of gallons of crude oil. An engine fire and subsequent shut-down by firefighters caused the train’s brakes to fail. Down into the heart of the city the train silently rolled, eventually derailing and destroying everything in its path. Lac-Megantic was quickly turned into a fireball killing 47 people and destroying many popular bars, clubs and stores the city held dear. With a small population of roughly 6,000, this was something no one could have prepared for or imagined. It took two years to clean up the damage but the lives lost, young and old, cannot be returned.
Sadly, this is not an uncommon situation. Recently, in July of 2017, a train loaded with crude oil derailed leaking 45,000 gallons into the surrounding neighborhoods located in Plainfield, IL. Fire and smoke filled the air causing extensive environmental contamination and hundreds of people were forced to evacuate their homes. A similar situation occurred in February of 2015 when a derailment of 19 train cars caused 30,000 gallons of crude oil to combust in Mount Carbon, West Virginia. In a matter of seconds, what took a century to build was destroyed by fire.
In an effort to address this concern, The Argosy Foundation has partnered with Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and Stand.Earth on the Crude Awakenings Project in California. The purpose is to empower low-income communities to fight against crude oil trains. Thanks to the unique partnership between the two groups, many neighborhoods now have the resources and the knowledge to tackle big oil corporations before a tragedy rolls itself into town. By organizing impactful grassroots campaigns, participating in regulatory processes, helping to pass legislation, and engaging in public demonstrations, CBE and Stand.Earth have been able to shut down several existing oil train offloading terminals and have had many proposed sites rejected by local officials.
According to an analysis done by Stand.Earth, nearly twenty-five million families live within what is referred to as a “blast-zone” (). This means that if a crude oil train accidentally derails, the neighborhoods within these zones would be evacuated, with those closest to the rails likely impacted by fire. Together, CBE and Stand.Earth identified Richmond, Benicia, Pittsburg, Rodeo and San Luis Obispo counties in California - all proposed to receive oil train terminals - as high-risk blast zones.
“It wasn’t hard getting people to take action. Once they knew that they live in a “blast zone,” people were ready to do something about it,” said Andres Soto, an organizer for CBE in California. Andres has played a vital role in the success of the Crude Awakenings project by educating people on the dangers of what’s in their backyards. In spite of all the hard work put into the multiple campaigns that CBE and Stand.Earth coordinate, oil trains remain a severe threat to 5.5 million Californians and many of them are unaware of the threat. The first challenge both organizations faced was to inform and educate communities that they are in danger. Ross Hammond, the US Campaign Director for Stand.Earth spends a lot of time with residents who lives in blast zones. “[A] majority of these people are already unhappy with their living situation and they want to make a change,” mentioned Ross referring to living in a poverty stricken, polluted neighborhood.
Fortunately, CBE brings a strong legacy of environmental justice movement building, grassroots organizing, technical research and legal support, which was helpful in ensuring the community was well equipped with the proper information to go out and speak on the issues. Stand.Earth, on the other hand, has a strong legacy in communications, and coordinates political strategies to stop damage to the environment. Together, they helped play a vital role engaging elected officials.
Due to the collaborative efforts of CBE and Stand.Earth, for example, the Pittsburg City Council voted to reject a proposed WesPac Oil transfer and storage facility. At first, the local activists said it would be impossible to convince city council to vote against the proposal because the city has been reliant on the oil industry for so long. Regardless, CBE and Stand.Earth continued to raise awareness in the community, sparking a huge concern. “Sometimes, I would go door to door with a map of blast zones having people sign petitions...I would show up with a group of people at county planning meetings reminding public officials that elections are around the corner," said Andres. After hosting dozens of community gatherings and getting hundreds of petitions signed, both organizations worked together on one of the biggest marches Pittsburg ever had for environmental health and safety. In the end, elected officials had no choice but to vote the will of the people.
In addition, in 2016 after mobilizing the local community, CBE and Stand.Earth made the Bay Area Air Quality Management District decide to withdraw their permit for Kinder Morgan’s oil trains facility in Richmond, CA. Today, all crude oil equipment has been removed from the project site. Further, in San Luis Obispo, CBE and Stand.Earth continue to fight alongside the community to ensure the County Planning Commission & City Council upholds their vote to reject the proposed Philips 66 oil trains facility in the face of a legal appeal by that company.
Ross Hammond, US Campaign Director for Stand.Earth, believes a lot of the success they’ve had comes from the power of collaboration between the two organizations. “Communities for a Better Environment has an incredible group of lawyers and people who understand the complex issues around oil refineries in California. They are very familiar with regulations and litigation, whereas Stand.Earth comes with a lot of corporate campaign experience and social media experience. We are heavy on grassroots efforts. Bringing those two together makes it incredible to see what we can accomplish,” said Ross.
Moving into another year of battle, CBE and Stand.Earth hope to take advantage of the recent drop in oil prices, which means the pressure to build oil infrastructure is lower than usual. “We are putting regulations in place now so when the prices go back up, the oil companies can’t push anything through,” explained Ross. “We plan to continue our ongoing efforts within communities and along the rail routes to build a wall of opposition to oil trains in California among residents and elected officials.”
The Argosy Foundation is proud to partner with Communities for a Better Environment and Stand.Earth as they strive to protect communities and transition local economies into renewable energy. For more information please visit: Stand.Earth (https://www.stand.earth) or Communities for a Better Environment (http://www.cbecal.org/).