BETWEEN 6:30 AND 7 nearly every morning, a dark rumble drifts up through the chilled air from the railroad tracks at the bottom of our hayfield in the Adirondack foothills of New York. A line of more than 100 black tanker cars, mostly full of fracked Bakken oil from North Dakota, rolls southward. They will pass the field where our neighbor’s kids play, then close alongside beautiful Lake Champlain, which defines this region, and on to Albany, where the oil will be put on barges and floated down the Hudson River to New Jersey, to be stored or refined.
Tanker cars like these have been blowing up recently. An accident north of us, over the Canadian border, flattened a downtown and killed 47 people. These cars carry a mix of crude oil and volatile compounds arising from the fracking process, making them dangerously flammable. I worry about my small town’s volunteer fire fighters, all of whom I know personally and admire greatly, who do not have the expertise or the equipment to deal with an accident like that.
Watching the tanker cars, I am also haunted by a scene seared into my memory five months ago. We are driving east along U.S. Route 2 in North Dakota, our small camper in tow, trying to pass through Williston, smack in the middle of the Bakken oil fields.
As the sun sets, we see hundreds of oil and gas rigs flaring excess volatile gases in huge plumes of orange flame. Processing plants spew fumes of God-knows-what. There are row upon row of metal trailers, boxes really, actually used as housing for people. Unrelenting traffic beats a path on the undivided highway under furious construction, with no breakdown lanes or turn-offs for miles. Huge water tankers and oil trucks force us to move onward at 60 mph; there will be no rest for us here, as all campgrounds, gas stations, and parking lots are filled with the rigs of the temporary workers.