Rules on oil train, pipeline safety not moving fast enough, lawmakers say

Repost from The Tri-City Herald

Rules on oil train, pipeline safety not moving fast enough, lawmakers say

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, April 14, 2015

A chorus of lawmakers expressed frustration Tuesday with the delays in approving and implementing various regulations related to the movement of hazardous materials by rail and pipeline.

The acting chiefs of two U.S. Department of Transportation agencies heard Republicans and Democrats in the House Transportation Committee complain that rules on railroad tank cars and oil and gas pipelines had been on the table for as long as four years.

“It’s just unacceptable,” said Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

Sarah Feinberg of the Federal Railroad Administration and Tim Butters of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration noted that they have little choice but to work within a multi-step process that involves public comment, industry participation and multiple layers of review by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“It’s not built for speed,” Feinberg testified. “I wish that it was.”

Butters said that his agency had received 30,000 comments on its proposed rule to improve the safety of oil trains. He said the agency needed to evaluate them as part of its process.

“We have to go through all of those,” he said. “And that takes time.”

But a series of train derailments and pipeline failures in recent years has caught the attention of members of Congress, who are hearing concerns from their constituents.

“That’s just an excuse,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., the panel’s chairman. “Four years is too long.”

Last week, Feinberg visited Denham’s district in Central California to discuss pending rules on the construction of tank cars used to carry flammable liquids, the way the trains are operated and the way the tracks are inspected and maintained.

She also visited the Sacramento-area district of Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat who last month introduced legislation to regulate the volatility of crude oil loaded into tank cars. Texas and North Dakota, the nation’s leading oil producers, currently set such limits.

Garamendi proposed that the committee write the new rules into the larger surface transportation bill Congress needs to pass this year.

“We could write laws that protect the public,” he said. “Why don’t we do that?”

Acts of Congress don’t always make things go faster. In 2008, lawmakers mandated that railroads install a GPS-based collision-avoidance system called Positive Train Control by the end of 2015. But the nation’s freight and passenger railroads are likely to miss the Dec. 31 deadline.

Once the new oil train rules become final, it could take years to retrofit or replace tens of thousands of tank cars used to transport the country’s supply of crude oil and ethanol.

As a sign of how slowly the process moves, Capuano noted that BNSF, the nation’s biggest hauler of crude oil in trains, has gotten ahead of regulators by voluntarily lowering train speeds, increasing track inspections and encouraging shippers to use better tank cars.

“Whose butt do we have to kick?” he asked. “Whose budget do we have to cut? Whose budget do we have to enhance to make this work?”

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