Federal Officials Fear ‘Major Loss of Life’ in Oil-by-Rail Accidents

TAFT, CA - JULY 21:  An oil rig south of town extracts crude on July 21, 2008 in Taft, California. Hemmed in by the richest oil fields in California, the oil town of 6,700 with a stagnated economy and little room to expand has hatched an ambitious plan to annex vast expanses of land reaching eastward to Interstate 5, 18 miles away, and take over various poor unincorporated communities to triple its population to around 20,000. With the price as light sweet crude at record high prices, Chevron and other companies are scrambling to drill new wells and reopen old wells once considered unprofitable. The renewed profits for oil men of Kern County, where more than 75 percent of all the oil produced in California flows, do not directly translate increased revenue for Taft. The Taft town council wants to cash in on the new oil boom with increased tax revenues from a NASCAR track and future developments near the freeway.  In an earlier oil boom era, Taft was the site of the 1910 Lakeside Gusher, the biggest oil gusher ever seen in the US, which destroyed the derrick and sent 100,000 barrels a day into a lake of crude.  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Jan. 23, 2014, 7:48 a.m.

The Na­tion­al Trans­port­a­tion Safety Board is pro­pos­ing new re­stric­tions and safe­guards on the grow­ing trans­port of crude oil by rail, re­com­mend­a­tions that fol­low a de­rail­ment that killed 47 people in Canada last year as well as oth­er ac­ci­dents.

“The NTSB is con­cerned that ma­jor loss of life, prop­erty dam­age, and en­vir­on­ment­al con­sequences can oc­cur when large volumes of crude oil or oth­er flam­mable li­quids are trans­por­ted on a single train in­volved in an ac­ci­dent, as seen in the Lac Megant­ic, Que­bec, ac­ci­dent, as well as sev­er­al ac­ci­dents the NTSB has in­vest­ig­ated in the U.S.,” the agency, part of the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment, said Thursday.

The NTSB is call­ing on a pair of sis­ter agen­cies — the Fed­er­al Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Pipeline and Haz­ard­ous Ma­ter­i­als Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion — to toughen over­sight in sev­er­al ways.

One re­com­mend­a­tion would re­quire more plan­ning by rail­roads to avoid pop­u­lated and oth­er sens­it­ive areas.

A second calls for an audit pro­gram to en­sure rail­ways car­ry­ing pet­ro­leum products have “ad­equate re­sponse cap­ab­il­it­ies to ad­dress worst-case dis­charges” of all of the product car­ried on a train, the NTSB said.

“The third re­com­mend­a­tion is to audit ship­pers and rail car­ri­ers to en­sure that they are prop­erly clas­si­fy­ing haz­ard­ous ma­ter­i­als in trans­port­a­tion and that they have ad­equate safety and se­cur­ity plans in place,” the agency said.

Click here and here for more on the re­com­mend­a­tions by the NTSB, which is an in­de­pend­ent fed­er­al agency tasked with in­vest­ig­at­ing trans­port­a­tion ac­ci­dents.

The NTSB’s ac­tion adds to pres­sure on reg­u­lat­ors fol­low­ing a string of crude-by-rail ac­ci­dents, in­clud­ing a late-Decem­ber de­rail­ment and in­ferno in North Dakota.

The Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment is also craft­ing new safety stand­ards for tank cars, but sev­er­al law­makers fear that it’s mov­ing too slowly. The amount of crude oil be­ing shipped by rail is soar­ing along­side the U.S. oil pro­duc­tion boom.

Ship­ment of crude oil by rail cars is more than 400 per­cent high­er than it was nine years ago, ac­cord­ing to rail-in­dustry data the NTSB high­lighted Thursday.

“The large-scale ship­ment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t ex­ist 10 years ago, and our safety reg­u­la­tions need to catch up with this new real­ity,” said NTSB Chair­wo­man De­borah A.P. Hers­man in a state­ment Thursday.

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