NTSB: Equip oil trains with fire protection within 5 yearsBy Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, April 6, 2015
The National Transportation Safety Board on Monday called for the nation’s fleet of railroad tank cars hauling crude oil and ethanol to be equipped with fire protection within five years in an effort to eliminate the large explosions associated with recent accidents.
The NTSB cited the performance of tank cars in four recent oil train derailments, two in the U.S. and two in Canada, where fire exposure weakened the bare steel tanks and increased the pressure inside the cars beyond what they were designed to sustain.
The agency called on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to require tank cars carrying oil and ethanol to be equipped with a ceramic blanket and high-capacity pressure-relief devices.
The NTSB also for the first time endorsed a five-year timeline for retrofitting or replacing the tank cars, including the goal that 20 percent of the fleet be made compliant per year. Industry groups representing oil producers and refiners have pushed for a 10-year timeline.
“We can’t wait a decade for safer rail cars,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in a statement. “The industry needs to make this issue a priority and expedite the safety enhancements, otherwise, we continue to put our communities at risk.”
In January, the NTSB added tank cars to its “ Most Wanted” list of safety improvements. But at the time, Hart wouldn’t say what the NTSB considered an appropriate timeline for making the fixes.
The independent board, which has only advisory power, has been recommending upgrades to the nation’s workhorse tank car, called the DOT-111, for more than 20 years.
The car’s design became an issue after railroads across North America began hauling exponentially larger volumes of crude oil and ethanol. An oil train derailment that killed 47 people in Quebec in July 2013 galvanized a new effort on both sides of the border to improve the cars.
In February, the Transportation Department sent a package of proposed regulations to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review. They include requirements for thermal protection on the tank cars and are similar to a tank car design the Canadian government proposed last month. The final rule is scheduled for publication next month.
In the meantime, four trains carrying different types of crude oil derailed in the span of four weeks. The derailments, two in Ontario, and one each in West Virginia and Illinois, led to spills, fires and evacuations.
Oil industry groups have called for more attention to preventing derailments and less emphasis on the cars and what’s in them. But the tank car improvements have widespread support from lawmakers, regulators, mayors and governors, the rail industry and the NTSB.
In statements Monday, Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio, both Oregon Democrats, praised the NTSB’s recommendations.
“I am very happy to see that they recommended thermal protection for cars carrying hazardous materials, an aggressive retrofit or replacement schedule, and a transparent, publicly available reporting mechanism to report tank car replacement,” DeFazio said.
“It is my hope that the next step from the administration will be a strong DOT rule that will get these cars upgraded quickly, or get them off the tracks completely,” Wyden said.
The railroad industry’s leading advocacy group in Washington echoed those calls.
“The freight rail industry supports an aggressive retrofit or replacement program and believes final regulations on new tank car standards will provide certainty and chart a new course in the safer movement of crude oil by rail,” said Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, in a statement.