Train carrying crude oil derails in Washington State

Black Christmas: The True Cost of Oil

Today, December 22 around 11:40 AM, a train carrying crude oil derailed in north Whatcom County near Custer, WA. The train caught fire, and residents and visitors within a half mile of the site were evacuated. Reports indicate that some cars are on fire near the site of the accident. Though this is a relatively minor spill, it will have major impacts on the local ecosystem and human residents.


Environmental Impacts

Oil spills have a tremendous impact on the environment. This includes loss of habitat, as the areas directly affected by the spill become uninhabitable until significant environmental remediation can take place. Typically, spills on land are more difficult to remediate than spills in water, although surface and subsurface water can dissolve and transport soluble elements in the crude oil, as well as increasing the oil’s mobility. The oil can even end up in groundwater bodies, which are often used for drinking water and irrigation.

This transport of oil means that the spill can impact nearby waterways and wetlands as well. Wetlands are a vital part of our environment, providing habitat for a rich diversity of plant and animal species, and wintering grounds for birds. In addition, wetlands provide many benefits to people, including the improvement of water quality and flood and erosion control.

Health Impacts

Volatile compounds in crude oil begin evaporating when the oil is in contact with air. All petroleum contains volatile organic compounds, and these compounds can be both acutely toxic, and carcinogenic. When the oil is on fire, as is the case with the Custer spill, that smoke also contains hazardous chemicals, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide. This smoke also contains dangerous particulates that can injure the lungs.


The Danger of Oil Spills

When dealing with the transportation of oil and petroleum products, whether it’s by train, truck, pipeline, or ship, the danger of spills is ever-present. You probably never hear about most oil spills. In 2018 alone, there were 137 oil spills of varying severity in the US. Petroleum persists in the environment for decades, even after the environment appears to return to normal. Remediation of oil spills is a lengthy, expensive, and deeply imperfect process.

What Can We Do?

The only way to eliminate the threat of oil spills is to eliminate the use of petroleum. It will never be safe to transport and use petroleum. The U.S. is currently the largest oil consumer in the world.


  • Transportation is a huge source of oil consumption. You can drive less or drive an electric vehicle (but keep in mind that a lot of the electricity from your local grid may be derived from petroleum and other fossil fuels.



  • You can also support non-profits working toward a cleaner electricity grid. Vote Solar has been working at the state level to increase the amount of solar generation across the United States since 2002. They focus on six areas: Net Metering and Rates, Low-Income Households, Community Solar Projects, Financing, Incentives and Market Drivers, and Grid Planning, creating a holistic approach to increasing the amount of solar energy available to communities. The Solar Foundation works to increase the adoption of solar power throughout the United States by performing studies demonstrating the viability of solar power, and by offering job training to those who may be moving into the solar energy industry as a result of changes toward renewable energy.




Feature image from the New York Times

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