This story was produced in collaboration with Floodlight, a nonprofit news site that investigates climate issues.
When Lindsay Williams moved into her home near the railroad tracks on Houston’s east side, she knew freight trains would pass by regularly. What she wasn’t expecting were trains longer than a mile frequently stalled for hours on the neighborhood tracks, blocking multiple intersections of traffic during the day and rumbling her house at night.
“A few nights ago, we had a locomotive just idling right outside our home for six hours throughout the night, shaking the entire house,” Williams said.
In the coming months, the rail traffic problems could get worse. Two major North American railways, Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern, have proposed a $27 billion merger that would make it easier to move freight across North America with the first unified continental rail network. The merger is awaiting final approval from U.S. regulators. In Houston, that would mean an additional eight trains passing through each day.
However, the rail merger doesn’t just pose more inconveniences for residents of Houston’s East End. If it goes through, it would create the first direct route from Canada’s bitumen oil sands mines in Alberta to heavy crude refineries in Port Arthur, an industrial city on the Texas coast.
“We fully expect that the combination of the two railroads will only strengthen their support for this new source of bitumen,” the vice president of USD Group, a Texas-based midstream company, told a Canadian newspaper last year. Oil sands are already being shipped to the Texas coast by pipeline and rail. The rail merger and another proposed rail line from Utah is set to increase that amount.
Local environmentalists say the increase in fossil fuel refining along the Gulf Coast will impact their health — and increase carbon emissions. It also could put residents like Williams at risk of a hazardous oil spill. “I live close enough to the track that if there is a derailment, and there is hazardous materials, it’s going to impact me directly,” she said. “Not to mention all of the hundreds of other residents that these lines are on — it’s pretty alarming.”