Crude oil is being shipped by rail throughout the United States at an unprecendented rate, largely in aging tank cars by railroad companies governed by lax federal regulations.

So while rail remains a safe way to transport goods, the sheer amount of oil being shipped, and the railroads’ reluctance to replace old tank cars or share safety information, makes it more likely that a significant accident and spill will happen in Maine, something for which much of the state is unprepared.

There are slow-moving efforts under way at the federal level to tighten regulations and improve tank cars. In the meantime, Maine needs to make sure local first responders in communities traversed by rail are ready to handle oil-related emergencies.

NUMBERS GAME

The sudden increase in shipping oil by rail is the result of the boom in oil production in the Bakken region of North Dakota. Because of increased production out of Bakken, U.S. crude oil production will grow from 5 million barrels a day in 2008 to 8.5 million by the end of this year.

The amount of oil shipped by rail in the U.S. jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 415,000 last year, usually in trains featuring 50-120 tank cars, in what have been called “virtual pipelines.” In all, 11 percent of U.S. oil is shipped by rail, up from 1 percent five years ago.

In Maine, there have been no shipments of crude oil since last fall, but that is sure to change. Prior to that, oil shipments here were on a precipitous rise, from 25,000 barrels of crude in 2011 to 4.2 million last year.

Rail shipments are safe 99 percent of the time. However, there were six major derailments in the U.S. and Canada through an eight-month period ending in February, dating back to the July 2013 incident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just over the western Maine border, that killed 47 people.

The spills brought renewed attention to the cars that carry the crude oil. DOT-111s, as they are known, have been a cause of concern for decades now. Most of the cars in use are old, and they rupture easily — a 1991 study showed that oil is spilled in 54 percent of the accidents involving DOT-111s.

Specifications for newly built cars were put in place in 2011, and federal regulators are now reviewing even more stringent standards. In addition, some of the older cars have been retrofitted.

But that is a process that moves very slowly, not in the least because it’s unclear who — the railroads or the oil companies — is responsible for upgrading the cars.

FIRST RESPONDERS

So that leaves it up to the communities along the rails to prepare for spills, from small ones that are solely environmental hazards up to incidents that threaten lives and property.

Judging from recent reports, Maine has a long way to go.

Railroads here largely run through rural communities watched over by small, volunteer fire departments that don’t have the proper training to deal with a Lac-Megantic-sized disaster. Those departments would be first on the scene, and they would know little about what is in the rail cars and how the rail company plans to respond, since the rail companies are not obligated to provide that information. Experienced, well-trained, well-equipped hazardous material crews might be hours away.

Tim Pellerin, chief of the Rangeley Fire Department, one of eight from Franklin County that responded to the Lac-Megantic fire, told a U.S. Senate subcommittee earlier this month that ongoing, online training is needed for departments like his. That, he said, would allow volunteers to take the training on their own schedules, and help departments with high turnover provide training to new members.

Federal funding should be made available for that training, and the railroad companies should be involved as well. That is what has happened in Pennsylvania, the site of two derailments this year, where the two companies transportating crude oil have held training sessions for first responders, with more planned. It is also similar to the trainings that natural gas companies have held here in central Maine for emergency personnel.

The companies also should be more forthright with the information and planning surrounding their freight. According to a report by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, railroad companies are not required to share emergency response plans with state, county or local officials. They are not required, either, to tell those officials what they are carrying, and it can take precious time for first responders to figure out what a derailed train has on board.

Sharing that information has raised concerns over security. In Pennsylvania, however, one of the railroad companies recently signed an agreement giving the state’s emergency management agency real-time access to information on the transportation of hazardous materials, including crude oil. So it can be done.

The odds against a serious incident occurring in Maine are long. But those odds are growing shorter, and given the damage that can be done by just one accident in an unprepared community, Maine should be ready.