An invisible threat to many and yet a potential disaster is brewing in many large American cities. They roll past schools, homes and businesses in dozens of cities around the country — as many as 100-car trains loaded with crude oil from the Upper Midwest.

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 At 6.24.29 AmThese photos are from Philadelphia – people unaware of the risk under their noses.

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This threat is not new – rail has transported hazardous materials through congested urban areas since it began. The difference now is a fiftyfold increase in crude shipments that critics say has put millions of people living or working near the tracks at heightened risk of derailment, fire and explosion.

After a series of fiery crashes, The Associated Press conducted a survey of nearly a dozen big cities that, collectively, see thousands of tank cars each week, revealing a patchwork of preparedness. Some have plans specifically for oil trains; others do not. Some fire departments have trained for an oil train disaster; others say they’re planning on it. Some cities are sitting on huge quantities of fire-suppressing foam, others report much smaller stockpiles.

The AP surveyed emergency management departments in Chicago; Philadelphia; Seattle; Cleveland; Minneapolis; Milwaukee; Pittsburgh; New Orleans; Sacramento, California; Newark, New Jersey; and Buffalo, New York. The responses show emergency planning remains a work in progress even as crude has become one of the nation’s most common hazardous materials transported by rail. Railroads carried some 500,000 carloads last year, up from 9,500 in 2008.

The oil comes from North Dakota’s prolific Bakken Shale, an underground rock formation where fracking and horizontal drilling have allowed energy companies to tap previously inaccessible reserves.

The production boom has made oil trains a daily fact of life in places like Philadelphia, where they roll past major hospitals, including one for children. In Seattle, they snake by sports stadiums used by the Seahawks and Mariners before entering a 110-year-old tunnel under downtown. In Chicago, they’re a stone’s throw from large apartment buildings, a busy expressway and the White Sox’s ballpark.

 Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada Train Disaster July 2013
Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada Train Disaster July 2013

Is your home or business near rail tracks? Do you have any idea what might be moving on those rails? This is a significant threat in some communities. Be sure you understand your risk as well as ensuring that your business continuity and disaster recovery plans are ready for such an event.