Oil-Train Crashes Spur Safety Scrutiny

Scorched oil tankers remain on July 10, 2013 at the train derailment site in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Edward Bukhardt, CEO of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railways Inc.,(MMA) told reporters Wednesday that the train was left running while the engineer spent the night sleeping in a hotel in Nantes, adding that the engineer was following standard 'industry practice.' The train carrying crude oil from North Dakota derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic overnight Friday, causing a massive fire and explosions that killedat least 15 people, with another 45 still missing.
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Jan. 3, 2014, 3:12 a.m.

Rail-safety ad­voc­ates and mem­bers of Con­gress are call­ing for stricter tank-car safety stand­ards in the wake of a ma­jor oil-by-rail ac­ci­dent this week, an ap­peal that took on new ur­gency Thursday with the re­lease of a fed­er­al ad­vis­ory that oil from North Dakota’s Bakken form­a­tion may be more flam­mable than oth­er types of crude.

A train car­ry­ing crude oil from the Bakken ran off the rails near Cas­selton, N.D., on Monday, lead­ing to a vol­un­tary evac­u­ation of nearby res­id­ents. The ac­ci­dent oc­curred when freight cars car­ry­ing crude oil struck a train that had de­railed earli­er in the day. No in­jur­ies were re­por­ted but the crash sparked an in­ferno and re­ignited con­cerns over the po­ten­tial dangers of ship­ping oil by rail.

The event is the latest in a series of ac­ci­dents in­volving rail trans­port of crude in re­cent months and has spurred a re­newed push for over­sight and reg­u­la­tion of rail cars trav­el­ing to and from oil-rich states.

“We be­lieve the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment needs to act to im­prove stand­ards for the design and con­struc­tion of tank cars,” said Patti Re­illy of the As­so­ci­ation of Amer­ic­an Rail­roads, a trade group for ma­jor North Amer­ic­an freight rail­roads. “It is our hope that they step up and de­mand the safest tank car pos­sible both for new con­struc­tion and for ret­ro­fit­ting of the ex­ist­ing fleet.”

With do­mest­ic oil-pro­duc­tion sur­ging due to ad­vances in drilling tech­niques, oil-by-rail ship­ments have ex­pan­ded ex­po­nen­tially. This has caused pro­ponents of stricter rail-safety stand­ards to step up ef­forts to spur re­form. De­bate con­tin­ues, however, over which branch of gov­ern­ment should take the lead in tight­en­ing stand­ards.

A few months after a train car­ry­ing North Dakota crude de­railed in Lac-Megant­ic, Que­bec, in Ju­ly, the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment’s Pipeline and Haz­ard­ous Ma­ter­i­als Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion is­sued an ad­vance no­tice of pro­posed rule­mak­ing to strengthen reg­u­la­tions for rail trans­port of haz­ard­ous ma­ter­i­als. And on Thursday, PHMSA cir­cu­lated a safety alert that Bakken crude may be more likely than oth­er vari­et­ies of crude to ig­nite in the event of a rail crash.

“Rail safety is a na­tion­al pri­or­ity, and we have been ag­gress­ively tak­ing ac­tion on mul­tiple fronts to mit­ig­ate risks,” said Jean­nie Shif­fer, a Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment spokes­wo­man. “[As the] rule­mak­ing moves for­ward, we will con­tin­ue tak­ing ac­tion whenev­er ne­ces­sary to en­sure the safe trans­port­a­tion of haz­ard­ous ma­ter­i­als by rail.”

But fed­er­al reg­u­lat­ory re­form will take a long time to crys­tal­lize, and law­makers are look­ing to fill the void.

“Right now, we have slow-mov­ing fed­er­al bur­eau­cracy and ma­jor push­back from private in­vestors who own the rail cars, and both those things add up to a need for con­gres­sion­al ac­tion,” Rep. Peter De­Fazio, D-Ore., a mem­ber of the House Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Sub­com­mit­tee on Rail­roads, Pipelines, and Haz­ard­ous Ma­ter­i­als, said in an in­ter­view Thursday. “First, Con­gress should man­date that with­in a cer­tain peri­od of time you can’t use a DOT-111 car [com­monly used to trans­port crude oil] that hasn’t been ret­ro­fit­ted, and that would be a short-term solu­tion while we de­cide on a new, bet­ter design for these cars; and then that new design would be man­dated along with a phaseout of the old cars.”

De­Fazio ac­know­ledged a dif­fi­cult road ahead, though. “I don’t think Con­gress has the where­with­al to man­date the new design, but I cer­tainly in­tend to ask for hear­ings on this is­sue,” he said. “That’s all I can do.”

On the oth­er side of Cap­it­ol Hill, a spokes­man for the Sen­ate Com­merce, Sci­ence, and Trans­port­a­tion Com­mit­tee said Chair­man Jay Rock­e­feller, D-W.Va., is mon­it­or­ing the is­sue.

“The series of re­cent de­rail­ments and ser­i­ous ac­ci­dents in­volving crude oil is alarm­ing and de­mands closer scru­tiny,” the spokes­man said. “Re­gard­less of how crude is shipped, Sen­at­or Rock­e­feller be­lieves that it must be done in the safest man­ner pos­sible.”

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