All posts by Roger Straw

Editor, owner, publisher of The Benicia Independent

All about the unsafe DOT-111 tank car

Repost from The News Tribune, Tacoma, OR
[Editor: This article is a good start, but it leaves much unsaid.  Information and disinformation abounds regarding the DOT-111 tank car, designed in 1964.  There are retrofitted (improved) versions of the DOT-111, but they are a small percentage of DOT-111’s currently in use, and are not REQUIRED BY LAW for transport of hazardous materials … and even these retrofitted cars are considered by many to be unsafe.  A place to begin learning more is Wikipedia.  Even better is this NTSB document,  or this by New York Senator Schumer  … and especially this technical publication by Turner, Mason & Company.   See also the authoritative and exhaustive American Association of Railroads’ Field Guide to Tank CarsThe City of Benicia should condition Valero’s Crude By Rail proposal by requiring tank cars of the latest and safest designs for all deliveries, with stiff requirements for daily verification and harsh penalties for violations.  – RS]

Old oil tanker cars, old regulations, new danger

The News Tribune | April 22, 2014

Freight trains have an excellent overall safety record, which is why we don’t flee at the sight of them. But the growing numbers of oil trains rumbling through Washington ought to be making us nervous.

U.S. petroleum production – especially at the Bakken formation in North Dakota – has been expanding far more quickly than the nation’s pipeline capacity. As a result, the crude oil is getting carted across states by train and by truck. Let’s take a closer look at the tanker car that hauls much of that oil through Western Washington.

It’s called the DOT-111, a 1964 design. The Bakken oil that exploded catastrophically in Quebec last July, killing 47 people, was being carried in DOT-111 cars.

Five years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated a low-speed train crash in Illinois in which 15 DOT-111 cars carrying fuel-grade ethanol went off the rails. Thirteen of the cars ruptured; the resulting explosion killed a motorist waiting at the crossing.

The NTSB did the math: 13 out of 15.

“This represents an overall failure rate of 87 percent,” it concluded, “and illustrates the continued inability of DOT-111 tank cars to withstand the forces of accidents, even when the train is traveling at 36 mph, as was the case in this accident.”

The NTSB noted that the basic DOT-111 lacks many puncture-resistance systems and has a thinner shell than cars designed to carry extremely hazardous liquids, such as chlorine. It reportedly is well-suited for things that don’t blow up, like corn syrup.

Bakken crude – as the Quebec disaster demonstrated – is turning out to be unexpectedly volatile and even explosive. It shouldn’t be in the older DOT-111 fleet – newer models are reputedly safer – if the cars aren’t retrofitted with heavier steel armor and other safety features.

The American petroleum boom caught regulators and railways with their pants down.

Railroad companies didn’t have enough modern, thick-walled tanker cars, so the DOT-111s were pressed into service. Spills and explosions have resulted. The U.S. Department of Transportation hasn’t come up with the tighter tank-car standards the new reality obviously demands.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray held a hearing that put Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on the hot seat. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine asked Foxx when the new oil train standards would be arriving.

“My target date is as soon as possible,” he said.

Four years ago – when North Dakota ran out of pipeline capacity – would have been better timing.


    Federal Railroad Administration does not monitor or review railroad emergency response plans

    Repost from Environment and Energy Publishing

    Oil-by-rail loophole keeps U.S. emergency response plans in the dark

    Blake Sobczak, E&E reporter | EnergyWire: Tuesday, April 22, 2014

    U.S. transportation officials don’t review how railroads would handle worst-case oil train disasters like last summer’s derailment in Quebec, which killed 47 people in a fiery explosion.

    While railroads must keep “basic” emergency response plans in their own files, the Federal Railroad Administration does not monitor or review those plans.

    That’s because railroads are required to provide “comprehensive” oil spill response plans to the FRA only if they use tank cars that hold more than 42,000 gallons of crude. In an April 10 letter responding to a Freedom of Information Act request from EnergyWire, FOIA officer Denise Kollehlon said the FRA’s files “do not contain any records related to the active comprehensive ‘oil spill prevention and response plans’ for oil shipments.”

    Safety experts and environmentalists say the 42,000-gallon threshold is too high. They stress that the 1996 rule that set the limit never applies in practice. Just five tank cars nationwide are designed to store that much oil in a single packaging, officials say, and the FOIA response confirms that none are hauling crude (EnergyWire, Feb. 19).

    The threshold predates the recent surge in oil-by-rail transport, which has seen annual crude shipments jump from fewer than 10,000 carloads in 2008 to 415,000 carloads last year, according to industry data.

    Tim Pellerin, fire chief of Rangeley, Maine, said “tangible, realistic” emergency response plans could help firefighters, who often reach remote disaster sites before railroads’ own hazardous materials crews.

    “There’s got to be a system in place that checks this and oversees [railroads] to make sure that there are plans in place,” he said in an interview.

    Pellerin led a group of U.S. firefighters 60 miles north into Canada after a 72-car oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

    The disaster claimed 47 lives and put hazardous materials safety on the map for U.S. and Canadian transportation regulators.

    Later derailments and fires in Alabama and North Dakota in the United States and New Brunswick in Canada kept the issue in the spotlight, although they injured no one. Earlier this month, Pellerin called on lawmakers to provide more funding for first responders at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

    Local fire departments can request hazardous materials shipping and emergency response information from railroads under voluntary industry standards. But picking out potential weak points in such plans “is an awful lot to expect from a small volunteer fire department with a $2,000-per-year budget,” Pellerin said, adding that his department lacks the specialized knowledge needed to gauge the adequacy of railroads’ response measures. “I’m not an expert in 10,000 things — I’m a fire chief,” he said.

    The FRA, part of the Department of Transportation, did not respond to requests for comment, although it has previously said it is taking a “comprehensive approach to improving the safe transportation of crude oil by rail.” In February, the regulator reached a voluntary agreement with railroads to tighten oil train operating practices, lowering speed limits through urban areas and committing $5 million in industry funds to prepare first responders, among other measures.

    Holly Arthur, spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, noted that railroads are also developing an inventory of oil spill emergency response resources under the terms of the agreement.

    “This inventory will include locations for the staging of emergency response equipment and, where appropriate, contacts for the notification of communities,” Arthur said in an emailed statement yesterday. “When the inventory is completed [by July 1], railroads will provide DOT with information on the deployment of the resources and make the information available upon request to appropriate emergency responders.”

    Emergency response ‘offloaded to local communities’

    Safety officials have questioned whether voluntary arrangements go far enough to protect local communities.

    Outgoing National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman wrote in a Jan. 23 letter to FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo that without closely regulated response plans, “[rail] carriers have effectively placed the burden of remediating the environmental consequences of an accident on local communities along their routes.”

    Hersman reiterated her crude-by-rail concerns yesterday in her farewell address at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Crude-by-rail “can be a worst-case-scenario event, and we don’t have provisions in place to deal with it, either on the industry side or for the first responders,” she said.

    Experts at the NTSB and Canada’s Transportation Safety Board agree that the magnitude of the Lac-Mégantic disaster swamped the small railroad’s response resources, which can include hazardous materials crews and specialized firefighting foam. The railroad involved in the July 6 crash — Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. — has since declared bankruptcy in the United States and Canada and is in the process of being taken over by the New York-based Fortress Investment Group (EnergyWire, Jan. 23).

    “Railroads have for decades offloaded to local communities the responsibilities for emergency response,” said independent hazardous materials consultant Fred Millar, who has worked with environmental groups including Friends of the Earth.

    Millar said he was not surprised by the fact that the FRA does not keep tabs on railroads’ oil spill response plans. “Nobody even has a measure of what would be an adequate emergency response capability,” he said.

    By contrast, crude pipelines, storage facilities and waterborne oil tankers must comply with lengthier emergency response requirements laid out by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, U.S. EPA and U.S. Coast Guard, respectively.

    The 1996 rules for oil-by-rail emergency response plans were crafted by the Research and Special Programs Administration, the precursor to PHMSA.

    The agency said then that “on the basis of available information, no rail carrier is transporting oil in a quantity greater than 42,000 gallons in tank cars.”

    NTSB has since questioned why the benchmark for comprehensive plans exists if it never actually applies. Officials at the Department of Transportation have until tomorrow to respond to NTSB’s criticisms.

    “By limiting the comprehensive planning threshold for a single tank size that is greater than any currently in use, spill-planning regulations do not take into account the potential of a derailment of large numbers of 30,000-gallon tank cars, such as in Lac-Mégantic where 60 tank cars together released about 1.6 million gallons of crude oil,” NTSB’s Hersman wrote in her letter to PHMSA, also part of DOT.

    In the wake of the Lac-Mégantic derailment, PHMSA has also faced pressure to update decades-old crude tank car rules. Critics say the outdated federal tank car standards and the FRA’s lack of oil spill emergency planning oversight point to the difficulty of keeping pace with the fast-growing crude-by-rail business.

    The FRA and the railroad industry cite improving safety statistics, noting that more than 99.9 percent of all hazardous materials shipments reach their destination safely.

    But despite declining accident rates over the past decade, regulatory consultant and attorney Paul Blackburn said, “citizens need to be concerned about … what happens over time.”

    “After a big event like the Lac-Mégantic disaster, you’d expect the industry to be more cautious,” he said of recent voluntary safety measures. But “as these events fade from memory, there’s nothing to stop the industry from backing off on its commitment to improve spill response” barring federal action.

    Reporter Mike Soraghan contributed.


      Outgoing chair of NTSB: U.S. not prepared, not enough NTSB investigators

      Repost from Bloomberg News

      Communities Not Prepared for Worst-Case Rail Accidents: NTSB

      By Patrick Ambrosio Apr 22, 2014 7:38 AM

      Bloomberg BNA — Deborah Hersman, the outgoing chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said April 21 that U.S. communities are not prepared to respond adequately to worst-case accidents involving trains carrying crude oil and ethanol.

      Answering questions following her farewell address at the National Press Club in Washington, Hersman said U.S. regulators are behind the curve in addressing the transport of hazardous liquids by rail. She said federal regulations have not been revised to address the increase in rail transport of crude oil and other flammable liquids—an increase of over 440 percent since 2005.

      Hersman, who is leaving her post at NTSB April 25 to serve as president of the National Safety Council, said the petroleum industry and first responders don’t have provisions in place to address a worst-case scenario event involving a train carrying crude oil or ethanol. She said several catastrophic accidents have involved crude oil, including a July 2013 train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that resulted in 47 fatalities.

      The NTSB, in conjunction with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, identified regulatory steps that could be taken by the Transportation Department to address safety risks, including expanded route planning requirements for crude oil shipments, the addition of a requirement for carriers to develop response plans for incidents involving crude oil shipments and increased audits of shippers and carriers to ensure that hazardous liquids are properly classified.

      Hersman said the NTSB scheduled a two-day forum to hear from first responders and the petroleum and rail industries on safety issues. The forum, which will be held on April 22-23 in Washington, will include discussions on tank car design, emergency response to releases of flammable liquids and federal oversight of crude oil and ethanol transport, according to an agenda posted on the NTSB’s website.

      Tank Car Safety

      When asked about the adequacy of the DOT-111 rail tank car to carry crude oil, Hersman reiterated the NTSB’s position that the tank cars are not safe to carry hazardous liquids.

      The NTSB recommended in 2009 that all new and existing tank cars in crude oil and ethanol service be equipped with additional safety design features, including enhanced tank head and shell puncture resistance systems, top fittings protection and bottom outlet valves that remain closed during accidents.

      “We have said that they are not safe enough to carry hazardous liquids,” Hersman said about the DOT-111 legacy cars. “Carrying corn oil is fine, carrying crude oil is not.”

      The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration is working on a proposed rule to update the federal design standards for DOT-111 rail tank cars used to transport hazardous liquids. The consensus among industry and regulators is that new design standards are needed, but there is disagreement over whether the new safety requirements should be more stringent than the CPC-1232 standard, a voluntary industry standard adopted for all new tank cars ordered after Oct. 1, 2011.

      Staffing Limitations Said to Delay Work

      NTSB staff needs support from Congress to fulfill their mission, Hersman said. At present, she said the NTSB is involved in more than 20 rail accident investigations but only has “about 10 rail investigators.”

      “We’re going to have to turn down accidents that occur in the future because we have too much on our plate.”