How Safe Are Oil Tanks on Trains?
By Richard Wronski
As the current oil boom in North Dakota, Montana and Canada continues, long freight trains hauling dozens of black tank cars are rolling across the country and through the Chicago area with increasing regularity.
With tank cars brimming with tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil, these trains have been described as “virtual pipelines” passing through heavily populated residential areas.
But despite the hazardous nature of the cargoes on board, the vast majority of these tank cars do not meet the latest safety standards and should be retrofitted, according to federal officials and the railroad industry.
Older models of the type of tank car known as the DOT-111, which carry flammables like crude oil and ethanol, have an “inadequate design” and are more vulnerable to being breached in a derailment than newer versions, the National Transportation Safety Board has determined.
Critics charge that the tank car owners, who are generally oil and chemical companies, are balking at proposed requirements to fix flaws in the cars or gradually take them out of service, citing the costs involved and the demand for cars to haul oil.
And federal regulators have been slow to act even though the NTSB’s investigators have been sounding the alarm about the cars’ shortcomings for more than 20 years, critics say.
“Since 1991, these tank cars have been identified as unsafe. So anybody aware of that has to question why nothing has been done over the years,” said Tom Weisner, the mayor of Aurora, where tank car trains pass through regularly on the BNSF Railway and Canadian National tracks.
With the surge in oil production in Western states and Canada and insufficient pipeline capacity, freight trains are carrying increasing amounts of crude oil. The biggest U.S. railroads moved 234,000 carloads of crude oil last year, up from 9,500 carloads in 2008, and they are likely to haul 400,000 carloads in 2013, according to the Association of American Railroads.
There are about 92,000 DOT-111 tank cars currently used to move crude oil and ethanol across the U.S. Of these, about 78,000 cars should be retrofitted to be made safer or phased out, the association said.
Tank cars built since Oct. 1, 2011, are required to comply with tougher standards, including shells with thicker steel, but there are only about 14,000 of these.
After a fiery derailment on June 19, 2009, in Cherry Valley, Ill., near Rockford, the NTSB concluded that the design of the older DOT-111 cars made them “susceptible to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous material during the derailment.”
In that accident, 15 DOT-111s carrying ethanol derailed. The leaking fuel ignited, causing a massive fireball. One woman was fatally burned and 600 homes within a half-mile radius were evacuated.
More recently, 11 tank cars carrying crude oil burst into flames after derailing in rural Alabama on Nov. 8.
But the accident that caught the world’s attention occurred July 6 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where a runaway freight train with DOT-111s carrying crude oil derailed. A fire and explosion devastated the center of town and killed three dozen people.
After that accident, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., complained that the NTSB’s warnings had fallen on deaf ears.
“The DOT-111 tank car has proven particularly prone to spills, tears and fires in the event of a derailment, and it’s simply unacceptable for … communities along the rail lines to face that risk when we know thicker, tougher cars could keep us safer,” Schumer said.
The older DOT-111 cars have a steel shell that is too thin to resist punctures in accidents, and the ends of the car are vulnerable to ruptures. Valves used for unloading and other exposed fittings on the tops of the tankers can also break during rollovers, the NTSB said.
The American Association of Railroads on Nov. 14 joined those calling on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, to impose new safety rules requiring the cars be upgraded or phased out.
“We believe it’s time for a thorough review of the U.S. tank car fleet that moves flammable liquids, particularly considering the recent increase in crude oil traffic,” said Edward Hamberger, the association’s president and CEO.
The railroads say that by law they cannot turn away the shipments.
Meanwhile, Aurora’s Weisner and Karen Darch, village president of Barrington, have been mobilizing a coalition of suburbs to press regulators for the tighter safety standards.
At an Aug. 28 hearing in Washington before the Federal Railroad Administration and PHMSA, Darch called the DOT-111 “the Ford Pinto of railroad cars” and accused the regulators of foot-dragging.
Darch also charged there was “a broad array of industry groups aligned in lock step trying to block a retrofit program.”
Speaking at the same hearing, however, an official from Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich., contended that retrofitting all older DOT-111s was “impractical if not impossible.”
Tank cars cannot be expected to be “completely impervious to the substantial forces that occur in significant rail accidents, particularly high-speed derailments,” Dow executive Cheryl Burke said.
In September, PHMSA proposed rules requiring retrofits for DOT-111s, and opened up a public comment period, which has been extended through Dec. 5.
Trade organizations have submitted their objections to the proposed requirements.
In a joint filing, the American Petroleum Institute, the Renewable Fuels Association, the American Chemistry Council and the Chlorine Institute said shops that perform retrofit work are already at full capacity.
Furthermore, “increasing the number of tank cars that will be required to go back to the shop for retrofits could increase compliance costs significantly,” the groups said.
PHMSA will review the comments over the next several months and may have a recommendation by spring, a spokesman said.
In response to Darch’s charge of foot-dragging, the PHMSA spokesman said safety is the agency’s No. 1 priority and that over the last 10 years, the number of train accidents involving hazardous materials has declined by 16 percent.
The proposed DOT-111 rule changes “are very technical and complex issues that have required extensive review,” PHMSA said.
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