Federal budget bill sets January deadline on safety rules for oil tanker cars

Repost from The Seattle Post Intelligencer (seattlepi.com)

Federal budget bill sets January deadline on safety rules for oil tanker cars

December 10, 2014 | By Joel Connelly
Tanker cars from a derailed CSX oil train burn after derailing in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, last April. Increasing numbers of oil trains pass through Seattle and other Puget Sound cities en route to four refineries on northern Puget Sound. (AP Photo/City of Lynchburg, LuAnn Hunt)

Hidden away in Congress’ big spending bill, designed to fund the federal government through FY 2015, are stern marching orders to the U.S. Department of Transportation:

Deliver a final rule for new, safer oil tank car design standards by Jan. 15, 2015, and require that all rail carriers put in place comprehensive oil spill response plans.

The budget provisions, inserted by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, are prompted by an oil train disaster in Quebec, and the rapid increase in trains carrying volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to four refineries on northern Puget Sound.

“In Washington state, we’ve seen a startling increase in oil train traffic through communities of all sizes, from downtown Seattle to smaller, rural communities across the state,” said Murray, who has chaired the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation.

“That’s why I worked to set a deadline for the Department of Transportation to issue new safety standards for tank cars next month and worked to fund a Shirt Line Railroad Safety Institute that will help protect smaller communities without sufficient resources to respond to oil trains.”

Oil tanker cars derailed under the Magnolia Bridge.  No harm done, but not the case elsewhere.

An old adage applies to the oil train issue: There’s nothing like a hanging in the morning to focus the mind.

In July of 2013, brakes failed and an unmanned runaway train sped into the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just over the border from Maine. It blew up, killing 47 people and leveling downtown.

The train was using 1960′s-designed DOT-111 tank cars. Another train, using DOT-111 cars, exploded into mushroom-cloud flames last December outside Casselton, N.D.. It forced evacuation of more than 2,000 people from the small town.

While promising new safety measures, the Department of Transportation has been criticized for giving railroads too much wiggle room.

The DOT said last summer it is setting a two-year deadline for getting DOT-111 tank cars off the rails. In reading the fine print, however, the clock would begin ticking in September of 2015 — giving rail carriers more than three years to stop use of the explosion-prone tank cars.

The federal budget bill would make available $10 million in grants to improve safety at railroad grade crossings that handle crude oil or other hazardous flammable liquids.

The DOT gets resources to hire 15 new hazardous-materials and rail-safety inspectors and $3 million to expand the use of automated track inspections to make sure rail tracks are maintained on crude oil transportation routes.

In this Aug. 8, 2012 photo, a DOT-111 rail tanker passes through Council Bluffs, Iowa. DOT-111 rail cars being used to ship crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region are an "unacceptable public risk," and even cars voluntarily upgraded by the industry may not be sufficient, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2014. The cars were involved in derailments of oil trains in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the U.S. border, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

Refiners and shippers have responded.

Tesoro has stopped use of DOT-111 tank cars to supply its Anacortes refinery. The Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad has announced a purchase of new, safer tank cars.

But the railroads have continued to resist making full, up-to-date information on oil shipments available to state and local emergency responders. They are fearful the information will be made public.

While Murray is touting its oil train provisions, the $1.1 trillion spending bill has drawn some fire from the political left.

Republicans have secured concessions, loosening Wall Street regulation and letting wealthy donors give more to political campaigns. The bill has slightly weakened school lunch nutrition standards championed by first lady Michelle Obama.

Liberal Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., is voting against the bill.

“It is inconceivable that Congress would cut crucial regulations in the Dodd-Frank Act, when risky derivatives trading was at the center of the 2008 financial crisis,” said McDermott.

“Why is Congress giving Wall Street a massive Christmas present, when so many hard-working Americans are struggling to make ends meet?”