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Property rights and commerce collide when oil trains pass by

10/11/2015 | Real Estate Blog

We have written about property rights (the “bundle of sticks”) in the past, and we have written about railroads and property rights. When railroad tracks or public roads lie adjacent to private land, there is always the potential for a property rights dispute, and those disputes boil down to one key issue: While railroads are a critical part of the country’s infrastructure, the owners of property near a railroad have the right to demand assurances that they and their property will be safe.

One high-profile dispute these days is over oil trains. The fracking boom has helped to move discussions about the safe transport of oil from neighborhood association meetings to city planning boards. National land use forums have been devoted to the risk posed by trains full of hazardous materials — explosive hazardous materials — to the communities they pass through. And the difference from the old days of people worrying that a derailed train will scatter grain or steel rods all over their backyards is something referred to as the “blast zone.”

The blast zone is the area along railroad tracks that would likely be affected by an oil train derailment. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, officials should evacuate everyone within one-half mile of the tracks. If there is an oil fire, the department says, the impact will be felt for a full mile in any direction.

In September, the environmental activist nonprofit ForestEthics released the results of some interesting research. Using Department of Education data, the group found that almost 15,000 American schools are located inside the railroad blast zone. That puts an estimated 5.7 million students in harm’s way.

This country has not seen any fatalities from oil train accidents for a few years. Canada, however, will attest to the devastation: 47 people died and half of a small town was destroyed when an oil train derailed in 2013.

Federal regulators have taken some steps to reduce the risk, but activists say there is plenty more to do. We’ll go into some details in our next post, and we will discuss where Philadelphia fits into all of this.

Source: Insurance Journal, “15,000 Schools Located Within ‘Blast Zone’ of Oil Trains,” Sept. 8, 2015