Infrastructure & Environment

Feds Unveil Rules to Make Oil Trains Safer

by | May 4, 2015

By Curtis Tate

The U.S. and Canadian governments on Friday unveiled a long-awaited new standard for the tank cars used to transport crude oil and ethanol that includes numerous safety improvements.

But it is far from the final word on efforts to reduce the risk of catastrophic derailments, such as the one that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, nearly two years ago. And industry and environmental groups are bracing for a court fight over portions of the new regulations that they don't like.

Most of the current tank car fleet that doesn't meet the new requirements will be allowed to carry ethanol and some types of crude oil for eight more years. Environmental groups and some lawmakers objected Friday to the extended timeline.

It will be two years before the Energy and Transportation departments complete a study on the properties of crude oil and how they affect the way it reacts in derailments. While the rail industry supports the new tank car standard, it opposes the requirement for an electronic braking system on certain trains.

The regulation also expands the amount of information about rail shipments of flammable liquids that will be available to emergency responders, but incorporates it into an existing regulation that would exempt it from public disclosure.

In Washington on Friday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and his Canadian counterpart, Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt, rolled out the new regulations, which are generally in sync on both sides of the border, given the seamless nature of the North American rail system.

"Tank cars cross the border every day," Raitt said in a news conference with Foxx, "so it's important that the regulations apply equally in both countries."

The new tank car, called the DOT-117, will have features that are designed to prevent it from puncturing in a derailment and to better withstand prolonged exposure to fire.

The regulation requires that beginning Oct. 1 new tank cars built to transport flammable liquids have thicker shells, full-height shields on each end of the cars and a layer of thermal insulation on the outside. The new standard also requires more protection for valves and outlets.

The railroad industry supports the new tank car design but opposes the requirement that certain types of trains be equipped with electronically controlled brakes by January 2021.

Since the late 19th century, trains have operated with mechanical air brakes. The Federal Railroad Administration has said that electronic brakes would enable trains to stop more quickly and could prevent the accordion-shaped pile-ups characteristic of recent oil train accidents.

In a phone call with reporters Friday, Ed Hamberger, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, a leading industry group, criticized the braking requirement, saying it wouldn't prevent accidents.

The industry could avoid the requirement by operating the trains it applies to at 30 mph or limiting them to 69 cars. Either way, Hamberger said, it would be costly and disruptive.

The industry is taking a look at its options to challenge the requirement, Hamberger said.

Foxx said the electronic braking was reliable technology and that he hoped the railroads would accept it. He was also confident that the regulation would withstand a court challenge.

The rule might also face a challenge from environmentalists, who object to the retrofitting timeline. There have been four major oil-train derailments since the beginning of the year, and environmental groups fear there might be more before the new requirements kick in.

Within five years, existing tank cars hauling Bakken crude oil from North Dakota will need to meet the new requirements. But the cars can continue hauling other kinds of crude oil, and ethanol, for another three years after that with no modifications.

On Friday, a coalition of environmental groups _ including Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Riverkeeper and the Center for Biological Diversity _ said the process would take too long and threaten public safety and the environment.

"We are seriously considering challenging the rule," said Patti Goldman, managing attorney for Earthjustice in Seattle. "In particular, the very long phase-out period."

Lawmakers, too, weren't happy about it. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has pushed for an immediate ban on non-jacketed tank cars carrying crude oil and for a study on oil volatility, and in a statement Friday she said the new rules didn't go far or fast enough.

"The new DOT rule is just like saying let the oil trains roll," she said. "It's more of a status quo rule than the real safety changes needed to protect the public and first responders."

Karen Darch, village president of Barrington, Ill., a Chicago suburb, has been pushing for the government to phase out older tank cars, and on Friday she called the new regulations "a start, but definitely not an end."

"When you have deficient equipment that can't protect public safety," she said in a statement, "you need to fix it or retire it."

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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