Twenty-one train cars slid off the tracks in New Augusta, Miss., on Jan. 31, nine of them spilling flammable cargo like crude oil, liquid fertilizer and methanol. Incredibly, none caught fire and no one was injured. “It was a miracle,” says Brett Carr of the Mississippi emergency management agency.
Local officials weren’t the only ones feeling lucky. In Washington, the risk posed by America’s surge in oil rail freight has officials worried about a coming catastrophe and scrambling to impose new regulations to head it off. In 2013 the nation’s railroads hauled about 400,000 railcars’ worth of crude oil, largely from the booming oil fields of North Dakota, up from just 9,500 in 2008. The trains pass through populated areas, including major cities like Chicago. Most of the crude is carried in tank cars that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has long deemed substandard, and some of the cargo has explosive properties that regulators are still struggling to understand.
Now federal officials have warned the oil and rail industries that change is coming. “We aren’t going to wait,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx tells TIME. “Every aspect of this product’s transport has to be looked at.”
Last year, derailments of crude-oil trains in Alabama and North Dakota led to massive explosions. On July 6, a train carrying North Dakota oil crashed in Quebec, killing 47 Canadians. Though 99.9% of hazardous shipments arrived safely, more crude oil spilled from railcars in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined.
The oil and railroad industries don’t agree on the best solution. “We are not making progress and reaching a consensus on a new tank-car standard,” says Ed Hamburger, president of the American Association of Railroads, which is pushing the oil industry to adopt a more costly and fortified tank car. “We haven’t seen the data yet to know if that is a good idea,” responds Jack Gerard of the American Petroleum Institute.
In a sign of the new federal urgency, Foxx announced $93,000 in fines on Feb. 4 against three oil companies for mislabeling the hazard of crude oil loaded onto trains. “Action,” says NTSB head Deborah Hersman, “is overdue.”
This appears in the February 17, 2014 issue of TIME.