Federal Inspector General to audit transport of volatile crude by rail cars

Repost from The Chicago Sun Times
[Editor: See the Inspector General’s audit announcement here and the PDF notice to the Federal Railroad Administrator here.  – RS]

Federal IG to audit transport of volatile crude by rail cars

Rosalind Rossi, October 29, 2014
A CSX train from Chicago carrying crude oil derailed in April in Lynchburg, Va., forcing the evacuation of hundred.
A CSX train from Chicago carrying crude oil derailed in April in Lynchburg, Va., forcing the evacuation of hundreds.

A federal inspector general is launching an audit of whether hazardous materials are being carried safely over the nation’s rails — including highly-volatile Bakken crude that travels through the Chicago area.

“Due to the public safety risk posed by increases in the transportation of hazardous materials by rail, we are initiating an audit assessing the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) enforcement of hazardous materials regulations using inspections and other tools,” a memo on the website of the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation said Wednesday.

The memo specifically cited a fatal July 2013 Bakken oil train derailment in Lac Megantic, Canada, that “highlighted the importance of oversight of hazardous materials being transported by rail.” The Lac Megantic blast decimated more than 30 downtown buildings in the Canadian town and killed 47 people.

At least eight rail lines carry Bakken crude through Illinois, according to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. They are BNSF, Norfolk-Southern, Alton & Southern, CN, CSX, Indiana Harbor Belt, Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific. Maps provided by BNSF to the Illinois emergency agency indicated BNSF rails carry Bakken through Cook County.

A candlelight vigil about what protestors called “bomb trains” was held July 10 at the BNSF terminal at 16th Street and Western Ave out of fear that black tank cars observed there with  placards indicating they held flammable petroleum were actually carrying Bakken crude. The protest was among those waged nationally to observe the one-year anniversary of the Lac Megantic disaster.

“We saw 47 people killed in Lac Megantic,’’ Debra Michaud, an organizer of the Pilsen protest, said at the time. “A bomb train explosion in Pilsen or Little Village would be many times that.’’

In April, a CSX train traveling from Chicago and loaded with crude oil derailed and exploded in Lynchburg, Va.. The incident shut down roads and bridges and forced the evacuation of hundreds. No one was injured or killed.

The crash was among series of accidents across North America involving railroads’ crude oil shipments, which have surged dramatically as oil production rises in regions like North Dakota’s Bakken shale and western Canada.

Wednesday’s inspector general memo noted that crude oil shipments have increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 407,761 in 2013 — a more than 4000 percent jump.

Mayors Karen Darch of Barrington and Tom Weisner of Aurora have been particularly vocal about the increasing transport of volatile crude and other dangerous products. They say their residents face frequent traffic jams caused by long trains carrying volatile liquids and worry about the sturdiness of tank cars holding such liquid.

Some volatile fluids are being transported in the equivalent of the “Ford Pinto” of rail cars and such tankers should be upgraded, Darch has contended.

Darch Wednesday welcomed the IG audit as a positive development.

“We are all concerned about public safety risk and hopefully this report will have suggestions for further enhancing public safety,” Darch said.