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Scott Smith: With an aging infrastructure and a dramatic increase in transport volume, oil spills will become more common

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

McClatchy news recently published a report which states that there have been more oil spills from trains in 2013 than in the previous four decades combined. The figures are based on data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

With us to discuss these staggering figures is Scott Smith. He’s the founder and inventor of Opflex technology. And if you want to find out more information about this, you can read his extended bio below.

Welcome back to The Real News, Scott.


DESVARIEUX: So, Scott, let’s take a look at the graph here. There were about 800,000 gallons of crude oil spilled in rail accidents between 1975 and 2012, and 1.15 million gallons spilled in 2013 alone. Why such a vast jump in the number of oil spills?

SMITH: Well, a couple simple reasons: a dramatic increase in volume from about 9,000 railcars in 2008 to 400,000 in 2013; and you’ve got an aging infrastructure for all this transport that’s not adequately prepared to deal with the amount of traffic and the new explosive oils that are being pumped from beneath the surface of the earth.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. I’m going to push back a little bit here, Scott, because based on the increased volume of crude oil being transported via rail, it means even though about a million gallons were spilled last year, 99.99 percent of the shipments arrive safely. You know, some people would say that’s a pretty good record. What would your response be?

SMITH: Well, that’s a–you know, 99.9 percent, that’s a great record, but I don’t think the people that–47 people that died in Lac-Mégantic or their families would really agree with that, because 0.01 percent of–you know, if the accident rate is 0.01 percent of the volume, it really needs to be 100 percent when people’s lives are at stake, especially with the day and age of technology. There is adequate technology out there to monitor and protect human life, and it’s just simply not being done.

So my comeback on that is: when human lives are at stake, I think we need to have a 100.00 percent record of safety.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Alright. Fair enough. And on January 23, the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, that famous pipeline we all know about, the tar sands oil started flowing to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. The company responsible for the pipeline, TransCanada, says that they have done everything they can to prevent spills. But with an additional 590,000 barrels being sent to the Gulf, are we going to start seeing a lot more spills along the way?

SMITH: Well, you’re pumping a dramatic volume. And my response to that is: take Boston, New York, Los Angeles. As the population has grown, you’re going to have certain percentages of accidents. Humans make mistakes and there’s human error. So my answer to that is: as you increase the volume, you’re still going to have accidents. And the question is: is the best available technology being used to monitor the flow of the oil, monitor the waterways? And are these companies prepared, when there is a spill, to remove the oil as rapidly as possible with the best available technology?

DESVARIEUX: And you’ve witnessed these companies in how they clean up any oil spills firsthand. Can you talk about the cleanup process, specifically in Alabama and that big oil spill?

SMITH: I would recommend Aliceville, Alabama–the pictures and the video that I provided to you that were sent to me by John Wathen, who works with me, speak for themselves. That happened on November 8, I believe, and that spill is anything but cleaned up. And those are in wetlands–flows in the Tombigbee River, flows into the Mobile River, flows into the Gulf of Mexico. So for people that think they’re not affected by it, they are. All these waterways are connected, one way or another. And now they’re saying that that spill is somewhere around 700,000 to 800,000 gallons potentially. And you can see that dark oil flowing around all the–you know, basically the white booms and the technology they deployed. It’s–there’s oil everywhere.

DESVARIEUX: And what’s going on with the cleanup process right now?

SMITH: The cleanup process, basically the responsible party, you know, contracts the third-party contractors, and the contractors right now get paid by how many trips they make to the landfill. And the contractors will say specifically that, listen, we don’t want to get the oil out of the water. We’ll make less money. We don’t want to use a recyclable, reusable product. And that’s–it’s very, very sad that that is going on, because they’re playing with people’s lives and the environment. That oil needs to be removed from the water.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. And last week, Washington regulators met with railroad and oil industry representatives to discuss making changes to how crude oil is shipped by rail. We have Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. He said changes would be announced sometime within the month to improve the safety of crude oil trains. Do you think we’ll see the regulatory changes that are needed to make these sort of disasters rare occasions? And what would you propose?

SMITH: Well, herein lies the problem. Tony Foxx–great leader. Glad to have him as secretary of transportation. But the way our federal government works is the foxes are in charge of the henhouse here. My question is is: why is the secretary meeting with the drilling companies, the pipelines? He should be meeting with scientists from all over North America to talk about what their recommendations are.

And let me make a point here. If this were an FDA drug to help with cancer, there’d be a lot of third-party scientists. It wouldn’t be relying solely on the drug company trying to sell the drug. And I think that’s a very simple point that people really need to understand.

So why–for some reason, when it comes to transportation and this oil transportation, the companies involved are the ones setting the policies through their lobbyists.

DESVARIEUX: And what would you advocate for, then?

SMITH: I would advocate for an independent panel of scientific experts from the railcars and how to restructure these railcars, and from the rail lines themselves, and also transparency as to what is coming out of the ground and the oil before it gets loaded in a railcar or a pipeline. Now, I point to, you know, That’s–Crude Monitor is something developed by the Canadian government and the energy companies up there. It is a transparent site you can go to to see exactly what is coming out of the ground. And we need transparency in this country with third-party information. And we need to monitor things constantly.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Scott Smith, a call for transparency. Thank you so much for joining us.

SMITH: You’re welcome.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Scott C. Smith, Founder & Inventor of OPFLEX Technology, is a Harvard Business School graduate living wherever there is oil and toxic chemicals to filter from water and has been involved in over 20 patents. His creative and environmentally responsible vision for his company is setting new standards for Low Carbon Impact (LCI®) solutions not only to filter oil and other related contamination from the Worlds’ waterways, as endorsed by BP in the Gulf of Mexico in a 2010 USA Today Article, but also setting unprecedented standards to fingerprint and detect oil and related toxic chemicals in the water column.  Mr. Smith has invested his life and over $25 million in developing and commercializing the Open-Celled OPFLEX® Technology,  which is based on biomimicry of the human lungs with the Open-Cells of OPFLEX behaving as the Alveoli of the human lungs, but only breathing contamination and exhaling clear water 1 drop at a time.  Mr. Smith has firsthand experience on the ground in many disasters which include the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Dalian China oil spill, ExxonMobil Yellowstone River oil spill, Costa Concordia disaster in Italy, ExxonMobil Mayflower, AR diluted bitumen "Tar Sands" oil spill, Gowanus Canal ongoing oil spill in Brooklyn, NY, Lac-Megantic, Quebec Bakken oil train disaster, and recently the Aliceville, AL Bakken oil train disaster.