Chicago Sun-Times editorial: Old tank cars put Chicago at risk

Repost from The Chicago Sun-Times

Old tank cars put Chicago at risk

Editorials, July 31, 2014
This July 6, 2013 file photo shows a worker, wearing protective gear moving though the wreckage of the oil train derailment and explosion in in Lac-Megantic, Quebec (AP Photo/Ryan Remiorz, File, Pool)
This July 6, 2013 file photo shows a worker, wearing protective gear moving though the wreckage of the oil train derailment and explosion in in Lac-Megantic, Quebec (AP Photo/Ryan Remiorz, File, Pool)

America’s drilling boom means more freight trains are snaking through Chicago carrying oil, which can erupt into fireballs if the tank cars derail. A new federal proposal to make the cars safer should be enacted as quickly as possible, and any changes in the final rules should enhance safety, not weaken it.

On July 23, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx proposed phasing out tens of thousands of tank cars called DOT-111s that date back to the 1960s and that too easily rupture or get punctured in derailments. In the past six years, oil has spilled in 10 major derailments, many of them fiery. In the worst, 47 people died last year in Quebec. In April, 30,000 gallons of crude oil leaked into the James River amid a blazing derailment near downtown Lynchburg, Va.

Because more than 40 oil-carrying trains pass through metropolitan Chicago every week, the safety proposal is critical. Mayor Rahm Emanuel called it a “very important step to reduce the risk of catastrophic disasters in our cities.”

The weaknesses of older tank cars, which include about 78,000 of the 92,000 now in use, have been known for 25 years. But now there’s a new reason to worry about them. A boom in American oil production, largely due to hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — that extracts petroleum from places where oil pipelines don’t go, has led to a surge in oil-carrying freights. Nationwide, the number of oil carloads jumped from 9,500 in 2008 to 434,000 last year. Trains carrying crude often are longer than 100 tank cars and can carry more than a million gallons.

In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads to notify local officials before trains carrying large quantities of crude pass through. Now, the department has proposed a range of additional safety options, including requiring new or retrofitted tank cars to have thicker shells, more effective brakes and roll-over protections. Tank cars that don’t meet the new standards would be phased out after two years if they carry the most flammable fuels, including ethanol and most grades of crude oil.

Foxx also is calling for speed limits on trains transporting the fuels, especially through highly populated areas, and testing of the liquids they carry.

The proposals will go through negotiations, including a public comment period, before the final rules come out. Not everyone will agree: Industry representatives, for example, think the proposed speed limits are too low and environmentalists think they are too high.

Fortunately, industry players, including the Association of American Railroads and the American Petroleum Institute, agree tank cars need to be safer. They have offered their own safety enhancements, which don’t go as far as those proposed by Foxx. For example, they want a three-year phase-out period instead of two and would select a design used on tank cars built since 2011 as the new, safer standard.

The final rules should take into account legitimate concerns of business and environmentalists, but the government shouldn’t significantly water down the safety proposals nor let negotiations drag on, putting off the day crude shipments get safer.

We don’t want to see any disastrous fireballs along the many rail lines running through Chicago and its suburbs.

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