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States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

Repost from GOVERNING The States and Localities

States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

Some states are looking to prevent more derailments and spills, but the freight industry doesn’t want more regulation.
 By Daniel C. Vock | August 26, 2015

In 2014, several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va. (AP/Steve Helber)

When it comes to regulating railroads, states usually let the federal government determine policy. But mounting concerns about the safety of oil trains are making states bolder. In recent months, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington state have taken steps to strengthen oversight of the freight rail industry.

The three join several other states — mostly led by Democrats — in policing oil shipments through inspection, regulation and even lawsuits. Washington, for example, applied a 4-cent-per-barrel tax on oil moved by trains to help pay for clean-ups of potential spills. The new law also requires freight rail companies to notify local emergency personnel when oil trains would pass through their communities.

“This means that at a time when the number of oil trains running through Washington is skyrocketing, oil companies will be held accountable for playing a part in preventing and responding to spills,” said Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee when signing the measure this spring.

The flurry of state activity comes in response to a huge surge in the amount of oil transported by rail in the last few years. Oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and nearby states must travel by train to refineries and ports because there are few pipelines or refineries on the Great Plains. The type of oil found in North Dakota is more volatile — that is, more likely to catch on fire — than most varieties of crude.

Public concerns about the safety of trains carrying oil have increased with the derailments in places like Galena, Ill.; Mt. Carbon, W. Va.; Aliceville, Ala.; Lynchburg, Va.; Casselton, N.D.; and especially Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people died in 2013.

Federal regulators responded to these incidents by requiring railroads to upgrade their oil train cars, to double check safety equipment on unattended trains, and to tell states when and where oil trains would be passing through their borders. This last requirement was hard won. This summer, the Federal Railroad Administration tried to encourage states to sign nondisclosure agreements with railroads about the location of oil trains. After several states balked, the agency relented.

California, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Oklahoma have all signed nondisclosure agreements, while Idaho, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin have refused to do so, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

A Maryland judge earlier this month ruled against two rail carriers, Norfolk Southern and CSX, that wanted to block the state’s environmental agency from releasing details of their oil shipments. The railroads have until early next month to decide whether to appeal.

“The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret,” wrote reporter Curtis Tate of McClatchy, one of the news organizations that requested the records, “but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to see them.”

Many states want this information so that fire departments and other emergency personnel can prepare for a potential derailment. California passed a law last year imposing clean-up fees on oil shipped by rail. The railroad industry challenged the law in court, but a judge ruled this summer that the lawsuit was premature. Minnesota passed a similar law last year, and New York added rail inspectors to cope with the increase in oil train traffic. A 1990 federal law lets states pass their own rules to prepare for oil spills, as long as those rules are at least as rigorous as federal regulations.

In Pennsylvania, which handles 60 to 70 oil trains a week, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf asked a University of Delaware expert to help to improve safety of oil trains traveling through the state. The professor, Allan Zarembski, produced 27 recommendations for the state and the railroads. He called on the state to improve its inspection processes of railroad tracks, particularly for tracks leading into rail yards, side tracks and refineries that often handle oil trains. The professor also encouraged the state to coordinate emergency response work with the railroads and local communities.

Zarembski’s suggestions for the railroads focused on how they should test for faulty tracks, wheel bearings and axles. Most major derailments in recent years were caused by faulty track or broken equipment, not human error, he noted in his report.

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Expert comments on new DOT rules – Dr. Fred Millar

Repost of an email from Fred Millar
[Editor:  Dr. Fred Millar is a policy analyst, researcher, educator, and consultant with more than three decades of experience assessing the risks associated with transporting hazardous materials.  More about Fred here on p. 3 of his Comment on Valero Benicia’s crude by rail proposal.  – RS]

NEW REGULATIONS: DOT Canada joint announcement  – Comments and notes

By Fred Millar, May 1 2015

Full Final Rule: http://www.dot.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/docs/final-rule-flammable-liquids-by-rail_0.pdf

1.      The US/Canada announcement of harmonized new safety regulations for trying to prevent Crude by Rail disasters falls far short of what is needed and yields another clear indicator of how industry lobbying weakens efforts for any significant and effective government regulation.

Senator Cantwell [D-WA] has bluntly stated: “This new DOT rule is just like saying let the oil trains roll. It does nothing to address explosive volatility, very little to reduce the threat of rail car punctures, and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars. It’s more of a status quo rule than the real safety changes needed to protect the public and first responders.”

2.      Safety-minded DOT staffers have often in public forums and in regulatory documents pointedly highlighted important safety issues with High Hazard Flammable Trains [HHFT].   But DOT Secretary Foxx’s ongoing rollouts of painfully limited regulatory proposals keep coming even after the staff’s own public statements [e.g., by Karl Alexy] and their regulatory documents. For example, the July 2014 Draft Regulatory Impact Analysis clearly predicts an alarming level of expected ongoing derailment disasters, but this is apparently a level which industry considers an acceptable cost of doing business when the current basic industry practices are not significantly altered.

The most clearly disappointing aspects of the new Final Rule involve:

  • Train speed: these high allowed speed limits [which the railroads have already adopted voluntarily] would ensure ongoing derailment punctures of even the newer tank cars.
  • Routing: simply extending the existing ineffective and secret rail urban routing regime to HHFTs means railroads are free to keep our cities and sensitive environmental areas at high risk, and keeping the public in the dark about those risks.
  • Retrofit schedules extending in some cases ten years, to 2023.
  • Volatility – not addressed at all.

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Intense negotiations have occurred behind the scenes regarding what safety measures  industry and governments can agree are feasible and economically practical, e.g., regarding how short regulators can make a mandated deadline for costly safety retrofits of the approximately 100,000 existing inadequate tank cars in the mile-long High Hazard Flammable Trains.

3.   A previous rail car safety crisis illuminates the political nature of the regulatory decisions as to what safety measures will be considered feasible.   In the 1970s, US DOT at first ordered the manifestly unsafe pressurized tank cars [more robust than the DOT-111s ], carrying cargoes such as chlorine, ammonia and propane, to be retrofit with various upgrades within two to four years. When the tank cars kept exploding, however, with one 1977 blast in Waverly TN killing 16 ill-trained firefighters, DOT hastily shortened the mandated retrofits deadlines to one to two years.

4.   These long-overdue HHFT regulations that US DOT rolls out [nearly 2 full years after the Lac-Megantic Quebec tragedy with 47 dead] are designed to look vigorous, but will not deliver significant improvements in any of the most-needed safety measures to prevent ongoing disasters:

    • Volatility reduction – Obama already punted on this to 3 ND regulators, awash in oil money
    • Emergency response capabilities
    • Tank car design
    • Train Speed
    • Risk-reduction routing
    • Risk Information to the public – as NTSB has pointed out should be a key element in undergirding serious safety measures and emergency response planning

5.   The context here is notable: ongoing fireball disasters with Crude Oil Trains in Canada and the US, with the newest design of tank cars, the CPC-1232s, releasing their contents in several.

Even an eminently railroad-friendly commentator in the rail industry’s own Trains Magazine – Fred Frailey – is frustrated by railroads’ failure to decisively to prevent the spate of CBR disasters… He says the North American public is rightly alarmed by the massive crude oil trains as they see that “Railroads aren’t good at keeping them on the tracks.” [May 2015 issue]

Similar railcar disaster crises in the past alarmed the public and prompted Congress and regulators to beef up safety:

An excerpt:

Many tank cars that were built starting in the 1960s were designed to carry as much cargo as possible, which meant thin shells that could easily puncture or rupture in a derailment. While economical, the designs proved disastrous in a number of horrific incidents involving toxic and flammable gases.

The deaths of numerous railroad workers and emergency responders in the 1970s spurred regulators and the industry to improve the safety of the pressurized tank cars used to transport “all kinds of exotic materials that cause battlefield-like damage,” NTSB official Edward Slattery told The Associated Press in 1978.

Six weeks after 16 people were killed in Waverly, Tenn., including the town’s police and fire chiefs, when a tank car filled with propane exploded following a train derailment, the NTSB convened an emergency hearing in Washington. Nearly 50 witnesses testified, including mayors, emergency responders, railroad executives, private citizens and a young state attorney general from Arkansas named Bill Clinton.

“Every month in which unprotected tank cars ride the rails increases the chances of another catastrophic hazardous-materials accident,” said James King, then the NTSB’s chairman, in opening the hearing on April 4, 1978.

By the early 1980s, pressurized cars were equipped with puncture-resistant shields, fire-resistant thermal insulation and devices to help the cars stay coupled in derailments, reducing the risk that they could strike and puncture each other.

An industry study found that the retrofits made a big difference within six years. Punctures of the car’s heads – the round shields at each end of the car – fell by 94 percent. Punctures in the car’s shell – its cylindrical body – fell 67 percent. Ruptures due to fire exposure fell by 93 percent.

Additional changes in railroad operating practices, track maintenance and training for emergency response personnel reduced the frequency and severity of accidents.

The non-pressurized DOT-111A, however, was left mostly unaltered. Upgrades probably weren’t necessary when the cars were carrying benign products such as corn syrup or vegetable oils, but regulators also allowed the cars to transport flammable and corrosive materials.

In accident after accident over the next three decades, the NTSB repeatedly referred to the cars’ shortcomings.

“The inadequacy of the protection provided by DOT-111A tank cars for certain dangerous products has been evident for many years,” the NTSB wrote the Federal Railroad Administration in a letter dated July 1, 1991.

Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/01/27/215650/railroad-tank-car-safety-woes.html#storylink=cpy

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