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US Department of Transportation Delays New Rules on 'Bomb Trains'

Environmental groups and rail industry watchdogs worry that US regulators are moving too slowly and too passively in taking aging and accident-prone tanker cars off the nation's railways.

by Peter Rugh
Jan 15 2015, 5:10pm

Image via AP/Bruce Crummy

Following a series of derailments, spills, and deadly explosions, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) proposed new regulations this summer for the shipment of certain types of crude oil over the nation's railways. DOT received nearly 150,000 public comments and late last year Congress set a Friday deadline for the department to issue its final rules.

DOT said this week it doesn't expect to publish them until May, which has provoked the ire of Congress.

"I'm extremely concerned that the Department of Transportation is set to miss the deadline I set to issue new safety rules for tank cars," Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat representing Washington State, told VICE News. "The fact of the matter is that these trains are transporting flammable goods with old, outdated, and potentially dangerous tank cars. That's unacceptable, and the Department owes our communities and the environment new safety measures."

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine and chairwoman of the Senate appropriations committee overseeing transportation, said she is likely to raise the issue with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx during an upcoming budget hearing.

Regardless of the delay, environmentalists and rail industry watchdogs say the department's draft regulations from the summer hinted that the DOT's final rules are unlikely to provide sufficient oversight of oil-by-rail transport.

"This administration has shown that it does not intend to regulate the railroads," Fred Millar, an independent railroad consultant, told VICE News. "What we've got is the pretense of government regulations."

The rulemaking process has centered on oil shipments from the Bakken formation, located primarily in North Dakota, where production has boomed over the past decade and helped to push the United States to the top of the world's oil producing nations. But, as oil production outstripped pipeline capacity, more and more oil from the Bakken has been delivered to refineries around the country by train.

The number of tanker cars on US rails jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 415,000 in 2013, according to the DOT. The Congressional Research Service reported that 258,541 carloads of crude traveled over the nation's railroads in the first half of 2014.

An aging type of tanker car called a DOT-111 is the primary vehicle for transporting Bakken crude. New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat, has called the DOT-111 a "ticking time bomb."

In the last two years, DOT-111s carrying Bakken oil have been involved in major explosions in Casselton, North Dakota; Lynchburg, Virginia; and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where the conflagration killed 47 people and destroyed much of the town. In Philadelphia, a DOT-111 derailed on a bridge, dangling over the Schuylkill River and Interstate 76 for several days before its operator, CSX, was able to set it upright.

The Transportation Department has presented different options of what its final rules might entail. It could require rail companies to retrofit a subset of older DOT-111s or phase out their use altogether. The department also proposed limiting the allowable speed at which trains could travel through populated areas and requiring companies to inform local emergency personnel that hazardous cargo would be transported through their jurisdictions.

The American Association of Railroads welcomed the proposed regulations, saying many of them were measures its members had previously agreed to implement voluntarily.

Critics of the industry, however, fear the final regulations are likely to fall short of what is needed to avoid future derailments, spills, or catastrophic explosions.

"We're talking about high volumes of hazardous material," Sean Dixon of Riverkeeper told VICE News. "It's not contained behind a fence or guarded off but moving past schools, through downtowns, and over drinking water supplies."

It's time to stop extracting fossil fuels, say British researchers. Read more here.

High on Riverkeeper's list of demands is an immediate ban on DOT-111 cars, rather than a gradual phase out or retrofitting as DOT has proposed.

A prohibition seems unlikely, even though regulators have known for decades that the cars are twice as likely to rupture than other models.

DOT has proposed that crude oil carriers retrofit the cars with thicker shells, tighter valves, or additional brakes. Existing DOT-111 tank cars that have not been retrofitted would be excluded from transporting Bakken crude in October 2017.

The department might also formalize an agreement it made with AAR imposing a speed limit of 50 miles per hour when transporting Bakken oil. The limit would be reduced to 40 miles per hour within 46 federally designated urban safety zones, where the risks of casualties are high due to greater population densities.

DOT data shows, however, that in seven out of thirteen major spills since 2006, trains were traveling below 40 miles per hour prior to derailing and in all thirteen incidents trains were at speeds below 50 mph. In Lynchburg, the train was traveling at 23 mph.

"There are plenty of suburbs where the population density and danger is the same as in these 46 safety zones but where a proposed new speed limit wouldn't apply," Dixon told VICE News.

But, say environmental groups, perhaps the most glaring regulatory gap in the forthcoming rules is they fail to regulate trains carrying oil from the tar sands region of Alberta, Canada. Over 160,000 barrels per day were exported to the US by rail in the first quarter of 2014, according to the Canadian National Energy Board, up from about 150,000 per day at the end of 2013.

Bomb Trains: The Crude Gamble of Oil by Rail. Watch the VICE News documentary.

Canadian regulators have mandated the phase out DOT-111s by May 2017. Environmentalists warn that the deadline could be rolled back in order to harmonize Canadian and US standards.

"The Canadians could either delay the phase-out or else redefine their criteria for what the DOT-111s can carry," Eric de Place, Policy Director at the Sightline Institute, told VICE News. "History has shown they will adjust their rules based on US standards."

A spokeswoman for Canadian Transport Minister Lisa Raitt told Reuters on Wednesday: "I can confirm that the May 2017 deadline for crude carrying DOT-111s remains."

Follow Peter Rugh on Twitter: @JohnReedsTomb