New rules for crude-by-rail transport fall short

Repost from SFGate (San Francisco Chronicle)

New rules for crude-by-rail transport fall short

By Lois Kazakoff on May 1, 2015 5:50 PM
Oil imports by rail account for just about 1 percent of total shipments to California refineries, but they are rising rapidly. Above, trains at a Union Pacific yard in Bloomington, Calif.
California moves to prevent spills of oil shipped by trains – Oil imports by rail account for just about 1 percent of total shipments to California refineries, but they are rising rapidly. Above, trains at a Union Pacific yard in Bloomington, Calif. Photo By Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/MCT

The U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled new rules on transporting crude oil by rail Friday that set a timeline to get old-technology, easily punctured tank cars off U.S. and Canadian rail lines but fail to address the explosive nature of the Bakken crude that sparked the public’s concerns to begin with.

While the new rules are a step toward safer rail transport, it is a disappointing decision for the dozens of communities the oil trains roll through on the way to West Coast refineries. The new rules get the old DOT-111 cars off the rails over the next three years, and beef up the steel gauge required to construct the new CPC-1232 cars. But the Department of Transportation itself noted nearly a decade ago that the old cars punctured in minor, low-speed collisions. The new rules should have immediately banned them rather than phasing them out.

Most distressing is that the new rules do not set a standard for the volatility of what goes in the tank cars. Lower volatility would reduce the risk of explosions. Crude extracted from the Bakken Oil Shale is significantly more volatile than other types of petroleum — a fact the Department of Transportation has acknowledged and the public became aware of in July 2013 when a train carrying Bakken crude exploded in Lac Megantic, Ontario.

The new rules will do little to allay the worries of residents in Davis, Martinez and Pinole, where railroad tracks crisscross streets, or in Benicia, where Valero has applied for permission to retrofit its refinery to receive crude by rail in addition to crude by tanker ship. Valero has proposed moving the oil in the CPC-1232 cars, limiting oil trains to 50 cars rather than the more standard unit of 100 cars, and reducing train speeds in town. The City of Benicia is expected to release the draft environmental impact report on the project June 30.

Bills introduced in the House and the Senate this month would address these concerns, and more, notably requirements to notify first responders in real time when the trains are coming through. The new department rules require a railroads to provide a telephone number for first responders to call but do not require notification.

“These rules do not go far enough in addressing the safety concerns posed by trains transporting highly volatile crude oil through the heart of our communities,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. “We need to put robust, comprehensive safety measures in place that will help make sure communities are safe, rail cars meet the strongest possible standards, and first responders are prepared in the event of an emergency. DOT’s rules do not sufficiently address these issues and so Congress should act to put safety measures in place.”

Action in Congress this month presaged the announcement of the new less-than-adequate Department of Transportation regulations.

Thompson’s bill, introduced April 15 and co-authored with Reps. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, and Ron Kind, D-Wis., would require volatility standards and weekly communications between first responders and railroad officials about crude oil trains.

In the Senate, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced legislation April 30 to protect communities from oil train accidents, focusing on communication with first responders.

Last year saw a record 144 rail accidents in the U.S., up from just one in 2009. The volume of oil cars, however, has increased by 4000 percent since 2008.

Rep. Thompson has it right: Congress needs to step in and demand better protections for communities on the rail lines.