Press release, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman
[Editor: Six state attorneys general, including California’s Xavier Becerra, are asking federal regulators to place new restrictions on crude oil trains that pass through their states. – RS]
A.G. Schneiderman, Fellow AGs To Trump Administration: Close Loophole Allowing Trains To Carry Explosive Crude Oil Through CommunitiesEric T. Schneiderman Press Release, May 22, 2017
“Bomb Trains” Carrying Millions Of Gallons Of Crude Oil Routinely Travel Through Cities And Towns In NY And Across Country, Without Any Limits On Explosiveness And Flammability
Six-State Coalition Calls For Immediate Action To Set National Limit On Vapor Pressure Of Crude Oil To Minimize Threat Of Explosions And Uncontrollable Fires From Rail Accidents
Schneiderman: It’s Time For The Federal Government To Close This Dangerous And Nonsensical Loophole
NEW YORK – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, leading a coalition of six state Attorneys General, is urging the Trump Administration to immediately close a loophole that allows highly flammable, highly explosive crude oil to be shipped by rail through communities in New York and across the country. These so-called “bomb trains” are responsible for several catastrophic rail accidents in recent years, including the 2013 explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people; in New York alone, these trains cover roughly 700 miles of the state.
In comments filed in response to an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) issued by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the coalition calls on the agency to take immediate steps to require that all crude oil transported by rail in the U.S. achieve a vapor pressure – a key driver of the oil’s explosiveness and flammability– of less than 9.0 pounds per square inch (psi). The comments were filed by the Attorneys General of New York, California [Attorney General Xavier Becerra], Illinois, Maryland, Maine, and Washington
“Because of a regulatory loophole, these trains can carry crude oil through some of our most densely populated areas without any limit on explosiveness or flammability – creating ticking time bombs that jeopardize the safety of countless New Yorkers and Americans,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “It’s time for the federal government to put New Yorkers’ safety first and take immediate action to close this dangerous and nonsensical loophole.”
In December 2015, Attorney General Schneiderman filed a petition for rulemaking with PHMSA to set the national limit on vapor pressure of crude oil transported by rail at less than 9.0 psi . In December 2016, specifically citing the Attorney General’s petition, the agency announced that it would issue an ANPRM in order to gather public comment on vapor pressure limits and the safety benefits of utilizing such a limit in regulating the transport of crude oil and other dangerous materials.
Accidents of trains carrying crude oil have resulted in devastating explosions and uncontrollable fires – including the 2016 train derailment in Mosier, Oregon, where the resulting fire caused the evacuation of nearly one-quarter of the town’s residents, and the infamous 2013 Lac-Mégantic, Quebec accident, where a derailed train burst into flames, destroyed the downtown area, and killed 47 people. Despite the catastrophic impacts that these and other rail accidents have had on communities, currently there is no federal limit on the vapor pressure of crude oil transported by rail. In the comments filed with PHMSA on Friday, the Attorneys General argue that reducing crude oil vapor pressures to levels below 9.0 psi is not only practical, but is necessary for minimizing the explosion and fire danger involved in transporting crude oil by rail.
The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015 requires PHMSA and the federal Department of Energy to report the results of a multi-year study conducted by Sandia National Laboratories to assess the volatility of crude oil and make recommendations on improving the safety of its transport. The completion of this study and the development of accompanying recommendations may take years. For this reason, the coalition is urging PHMSA to recognize the substantial present danger that oil trains pose to communities by taking immediate action to set a vapor pressure standard less than 9.0 psi until a final standard is promulgated.
It has been reported that up to 44 “unit trains” – chains of 70 to 120 tank cars – travel on rail routes that bisect New York each week, each carrying from 2 to 3.5 million gallons of crude oil. These trains cover approximately 700 miles of the state, passing through small communities as well as the heart of population centers such as Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Plattsburgh, Saratoga Springs, Albany, Kingston, and Newburgh, and within a few miles of New York City. An oil train accident along these routes of the size and intensity of those seen in Quebec and other locations, could endanger the safety of thousands of New Yorkers who live, work, travel, and recreate along the trains’ paths.
Vapor pressure is a key contributor to crude oil’s explosiveness and flammability. Crude oils with the highest vapor pressures – such as those produced from the Bakken Shale formations in North Dakota – have the highest concentrations of propane, butane, ethane, and other highly volatile gases. While the vapor pressure of the crude oil involved in train accidents is frequently not disclosed, in the limited number of instances it is known – including the Mosier (Oregon) and La-Mégantic (Quebec) accidents – vapor pressures have exceeded 9.0 psi.
PHMSA’s stated mission is to protect people and the environment from the risks associated with the transportation of hazardous materials, including crude oil. In July 2015, in response to concerns raised by rail accidents involving crude oil shipments, the agency adopted a new rule that sought to enhance the structural integrity of train cars that ship crude oil, and lessen the chances of train derailments. Although the new rule imposed new regulations on the design and operation of train cars, it did nothing to increase the safety of the highly combustible liquids carried by these cars. Because of this, under federal law, crude oil can still be shipped through some of New York’s most densely populated communities without any limit on its explosiveness or flammability.
According to the Association of American Railroads, crude oil shipments by rail increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 493,126 carloads in 2014, representing an increase of over 5,000 percent. While rail shipments of crude oil have dipped somewhat in recent years, rail is expected to continue to be an important mode of transporting the resource in the future, particularly as crude oil prices and total U.S. production rebound as expected.
“No one should have to live with dangerously explosive materials rumbling through their backyards,” said Congresswoman Nita Lowey. “In Rockland County, trains carry crude oil directly through towns and neighborhoods where children and families live, work, and play. The risk of a crude oil tragedy in New York and across the country is far too great, and I am pleased Attorney General Schneiderman is fighting for this important step to protect our communities. As Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee, I will continue working with partners at all levels of government to prevent a crude transport disaster.”
“I join and commend Attorney General Schneiderman in his call for immediate action at the federal level to mandate a safer vapor pressure standard of 9.0 or lower for crude oil transported by rail. The Capital Region remains a major hub for oil train traffic and as long as volatile crude oil is permitted to be transported through the area, residents remain at risk. Almost two dozen Assemblymembers wrote the Administration last fall supporting this safety change,” said Assemblymember Patricia A. Fahy.
“I join Attorney General Schneiderman in calling on the Trump administration to take immediate action to protect our community by reducing the volatility of crude oil shipped by rail to mitigate the impact of accidents involving oil trains,” said Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy. “I believe the lower threshold would reduce the possibility of explosions and go a long way toward holding rail shippers accountable for the risks we face every day. I have called for lower thresholds since 2014 after we found out that the Bakken crude in the Lac Megantic disaster had a psi between 9 and 9.3 and my Expert Advisory Committee on Crude Oil Safety Issues made the same recommendation that I sent to the former Secretary of Transportation. As we near the fourth anniversary of that disaster, we must take every precaution necessary to protect our residents. I applaud the Attorney General for pursuing this requirement and offering his comments to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on behalf of New Yorkers.”
“I fully support Attorney General Schneiderman’s efforts to improve the safety of crude oil that is transported by rail through cities like Albany every day,” said Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan. “Improving vapor pressure standards will help to protect our communities from the harm that can occur if a derailment or accident occurs. I applaud the Attorney General’s leadership on this important issue.”
“The City of Plattsburgh cares deeply about the movement of the most volatile crude oil products by train through our dense urban core and along our lake. Reducing the permissible vapor pressure for crude oil and chemical containers reduces both the potential for explosions and for chemical inhalation should an accident or puncture occur. I fully support the OAG’s effort to keep our population safe by restricting the allowable vapor pressure of these volatile chemical cars,” said Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read.
“In the past 10 years, U.S. production of crude oil has nearly tripled—and most of it is now being shipped by rail. The frequency of related deadly fires and explosions has also skyrocketed across the country,” said Kimberly Ong, Staff Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council. “Communities nationwide urgently need the Department of Transportation to put existing safety technology to use to limit crude oil vapor pressure and greatly reduce the likelihood of these dangerous incidents nationwide. We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman and his colleagues for pushing for immediate action on this critical matter of public safety.”
“Until the state achieves its goal of 100% clean, renewable energy powered economy, an oil train tragedy in New York is sadly a matter of when, not if,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “The federal government should immediately act on Attorney General Schneiderman’s call for less volatile oil on the rails in our communities. It could be a real life saver.”
This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorney General Mihir Desai, Environmental Scientist John Davis, and Policy Analyst Jeremy Magliaro under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chiefs Lisa Burianek and Monica Wagner of the New York Attorney General’s Environmental Protection Bureau. The Environmental Protection Bureau is led by Lemuel M. Srolovic and is part of the Division of Social Justice, which is led by Executive Deputy Attorney General for Social Justice Alvin Bragg.