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 notesBy Fred Millar, May 1 2015
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.
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:
- 2008 Chatsworth collision disaster led Congress – finally — to impose a costly Positive Train Control collision-avoidance system on the US rail industry, after US DOT declined to act for 20 years https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6Lg8YosjgY
- The 1970s crisis with pressurized tank cars is summarized best in Curtis Tate’s article for McClatchy:
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.
- The post-9/11 crisis in 2008 – new terrorism concerns with most dangerous Poisonous by Inhalation cargoes that could be used as weapons by terrorist. This was a response to four major 1996-2005 chlorine and ammonia releases in Minot ND, Graniteville SC, Alberton MT, and Macdona TX.
The 2008 DOT Notice of Proposed Rulemaking demonstrates the post-Reagan era constricting requirements for regulatory agencies to do extensive cost-benefit analysis justifying the safety benefits of imposing additional costs to industry.