Trains Hauling Crude Must Improve Safety

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Pam Linn

You don’t have to live near the railroad tracks to have concerns over the recent spate of accidents with explosions involving cars carrying crude oil. 

In defiance of recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to retrofit tanker cars to make them less likely to explode when derailed, the oil industry filed suit earlier this month to delay implementation of new rules. 

The American Petroleum Institute filed a challenge in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., that would block the NTSB requirements to improve cars that haul oil and ethanol. The influential trade group agrees improvements are needed but that the time frame is too short.

But this issue goes back to 2011 when the industry voluntarily adopted rules that required stronger tank cars for flammable liquids. However, cars built to that standard split open anyway in at least four incidents involving crashes and derailments during the past year.

Meanwhile, the volume of trains has increased 50-fold during the past six years in Canada and the U.S., contributing to 23 oil-train and 33 ethanol accidents involving fire, derailment and spills.

The NTSB’s position is that if the cars can’t be retrofitted quickly, then such trains should conform to lower speed limits when hauling flammable cargo. That makes sense, but the train that derailed in North Dakota this month was traveling only 24 miles per hour — less than half the allowable federal limit of 50 mph. 

Federal regulators announced a new rule this month calling for stronger tank cars that can withstand derailments and a more advanced braking system that would help oil-carrying cars stay on the rails.

The most recent derailment in North Dakota involved a shipment of crude from the Bakken Formation that was said to have been in full compliance with that state’s volatility standards, which require propane, butane and other volatile gases be stripped from crude before shipment. This process lowers the vapor pressure to a maximum of 13.7 pounds per square inch. However, a company spokesperson said the vapor pressure in the derailed cars was only 10.8 pounds and the cars split open in the fiery crash only two miles from the town of Heimdal. The small North Dakota town was evacuated but no injuries were reported.

Congress is now calling for action to make rail transport of flammable liquids safer. But do we already have too many competing regulations from different agencies? And how much power does the oil industry have to control the process?

The Department of Transportation (another federal agency) rules issued May 1 call for approximately 43,000 tanker cars that haul mostly crude to be phased out or retrofitted by 2020. But the new legal challenge by the petroleum industry says it can’t comply with that deadline. Environmental groups and residents near those railway lines say even five years is too long to wait. 

Most of the shipments originate in the Bakken Formation of North Dakota, Northeastern Montana and Alberta, but the trains travel through many states and cities to reach refineries on both coasts. And does each state have to get into the act with possibly conflicting rules? Does BNSF need to upgrade its rail infrastructure in some way, or could better rail maintenance have prevented this latest crash?

Investigation of the Heimdal crash found evidence of metal (wheel) fragments at the scene that are currently being analyzed at a federal lab. How long will it take to have definitive proof of the crash cause if all existing rules were followed? 

A concerted effort must be made to solve these problems quickly, before more fiery crashes occur. With any luck, such derailments will be less horrific than the one that killed 47 people in Quebec a couple of years ago.

Just applying piecemeal measures — as the oil industry would have us do — will not solve the ongoing problems of explosive derailments and aging infrastructure. The time has come for citizens and environmental groups to push back against an industry that appears to value profits over human life.