California oil train risks worse in minority areas: report
A train (Shutterstock)

Californians most exposed to the risks of oil train derailments or fires overwhelmingly live in poorer, minority neighborhoods, two environmental groups in the state said on Tuesday.

The report, the first of its kind to explicitly link issues of class and race to the ongoing oil train safety debate, urged state regulators to ban oil imports by train into California and reject permits for several projects refiners have proposed to expand oil-by-rail cargo capacity.

After analyzing U.S. census data for the 10 biggest cities in the state and several smaller ones near refineries, ForestEthics and Communities for a Better Environment found the neighborhoods with the largest minority populations were usually inside the so-called blast zone, the one-mile evacuation zone along tracks recommended by the U.S. Department of Transportation in case of accidents.

By one measure, about 75 percent of residents inside the blast zone in the cities studied were Hispanic-Latino, African-American, or Asian, with whites making up 22 percent of the population.

Outside the blast zone, the white population doubled to 43 percent.

"Oil trains contribute to environmental racism in California," the groups said in a statement. "Californians of color are more likely to live in the oil train blast zone."

To be sure, trains carrying toxic substances move through many wealthy neighborhoods, especially in Houston, which is ringed by refineries, and picturesque cities like Santa Barbara, California. A deadly 2013 crash in Quebec happened in tiny Lac Megantic.

But environmental groups insist it is only a matter of time before there is a fiery train derailment in a big city. Oil train traffic, especially to Washington state and the East Coast, has grown quickly as new oilfields from the fracking revolution often lack pipelines to move crude to markets.

For the time being, however, oil train volumes arriving in California have waned in recent months because of broader oil market volatility.

Critics worry those volumes will recover when crude prices spike again, bringing in more from North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and other nearby states.

In January and March of this year, crude by rail volumes into California were around 11,000 barrels per day (bpd) and 7,800 bpd, respectively, according data from the California Energy Commission.

That is a small fraction of 1.7 million bpd of crude processed daily in California. Half of that is imported, mainly from the Middle East, South America and Africa.

(Reporting by Terry Wade; Editing by Andrew Hay)