In 2013, oil production in the United States hit a 31-year high, due in large part to the introduction of two drilling innovations: hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. In the absence of new pipeline capacity, all that new oil has put a strain on the railway system used to transport it around the country, leading to at least eight major spills in North America in just the last three years.
After 47 people died in a derailment and subsequent explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec in July 2013, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) began developing a proposal for stricter safety standards for transporting volatile crude and other flammable materials over the nation's railways. On Wednesday, the Department submitted the final draft of its proposed regulations to the White House to begin a formal review.
"I've made the tank car rule a top priority for this department because the American people must have confidence that when hazardous materials are transported through their communities, we've done everything in our power to make that train as safe as possible," US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx told VICE News. "This is a highly complex issue, consuming massive staff time, scientific study, dialogue with stakeholders and experts, and coordination across borders."
'Sometimes first responders let these fires just burn for days.'
It's now up to the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to decide whether the proposed regulations are in the best interest of public health and safety and for generating economic development. DOT declined to speculate on when new rules might take effect, but a DOT spokesperson said OIRA's review is "essentially the final step."
In November 2013, a train carrying nearly three million gallons of crude derailed, causing a fire in a west Alabama swamp, which remained tainted with oil months later. Federal data shows that more oil spilled, gallon for gallon, in 2013 alone than was spilled in total between 1975 and 2012.
In 2014, the frequency of spills hit an all-time high of 141 incidents, many of which resulted in evacuations, fires, and contaminated drinking water and wetland ecosystems.
"This stuff is not only very difficult to clean up," Devorah Ancel, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club, told VICE News. "It's very difficult to control the fires. Sometimes first responders let these fires just burn for days."
At the heart of the issue are aging tanker cars known as DOT-111s, which were originally designed in the 1960s. Some of them are used to carry crude oil more than 1,000 miles from North Dakota's Bakken oil field, which has seen a boom in production from fracking and horizontal drilling, to refineries along the coast.
US Department of Transportation delays new rules on 'bomb trains.' Read more here.
As of mid-2014, there were about 80,000 DOT-111s transporting flammable liquids, according to data from the National Transportation Safety Board. Nearly 23,000 of the cars being used to transport crude don't have a protective steel layer called a jacket.
"One of our biggest concerns over the proposed rule is that the DOT-111 tank cars, which are extremely unsafe, aren't coming off the rails quickly enough," Ancel told VICE News.
The Sierra Club, along with environmental groups Forest Ethics and Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit against DOT in September after the agency denied a petition to disallow the use of the DOT-111 cars . That suit is currently in a federal appeals court, which has said it will rule once the final regulations are issued.
A spokesperson at the DOT declined to comment on any specifics of its proposal while still in the rulemaking process. But Ancel says a version from September would require the cars to be retired by 2020, with phase-out beginning in late 2017.
"Freight railroads have long supported increasing federal standards for tank cars and have called for an aggressive retrofit or replacement program," Ed Greenberg, a spokesperson for the American Association of Railroads (AAR), told VICE News.
Last year, AAR agreed to voluntary safety improvement measures, Greenberg said, including increased track inspections, specialized training for first responders dealing with crude spills, and reduced speeds across the rail system. The group has recommended that the oldest tanker cars, which don't have a jacket, be retrofitted within three years.
In April, Canadian regulators said all DOT-111s built before January 2014 had to be phased out or retrofitted within three years. The most dangerous cars had to be off the rails within 30 days of the announcement. By December, 2,879 tank cars were declared unfit for the job of transporting hazardous materials.
"We know Canada is doing it," Ancel told VICE News. "There's absolutely no reason the US can't do it. They can do it as quickly as or quicker than Canada."
Bomb Trains: The Crude Gamble of Oil by Rail. Watch the VICE News documentary.
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro