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McKeesport incident among derailments that prompt Sen. Casey to push ‘crude-by-rail’ rule

Repost from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

McKeesport incident among derailments that prompt Casey to push ‘crude-by-rail’ rule

By Patrick Cloonan, Feb. 27, 2015, 5:26 a.m.
Train cars hang off the side of a railroad bridge at the site of a train derailment in McKeesport on Sunday, June 8, 2014. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

A June 7 CSX freight train derailment on a bridge overlooking the Marina at McKees Point was one of at least three in the last 13 months on Southwestern Pennsylvania tracks.

That and other incidents — including last week’s West Virginia tanker accident — prompted U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, to call on federal officials to speed up implementation of a “crude by rail” rule governing oil shipments by freight trains.

“Crude oil shipments by rail have increased drastically over the past several years, largely due to the rise of oil production in North Dakota,” Casey wrote to Shaun Donovan, director of the federal Office of Management and Budget, in a letter released Thursday. “Large quantities of this oil travel through Pennsylvania and other states on a daily basis and are shipped by older rail cars that are prone to rupture.”

That included a Feb. 16 derailment of a CSX train carrying 100 tankers of crude oil through Mt. Carbon, W.Va., 30 miles southeast of Charleston.

Nineteen cars caught fire, oil leaked into the nearby Kanawha River, one house burned to the ground and at least one injury was reported.

Standards for such shipments have been devised by the federal Department of Transportation, with help from freight carriers.

“This is a complex issue with railroads working with policymakers to set the rules and with oil shippers to properly classify tank car contents,” Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said. “The federal government’s long-awaited rules will not only provide certainty, but we also feel (it will) chart a new course for ensuring the safer movement of crude oil by rail.”

The proposal must be reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget, which said it needs until May to finalize the rule.

“We know that rail transportation is crucial to our economy,” Casey said. “Millions of Americans live near these rail lines and have a right to expect … every step to protect them.”

Casey said he was addressing the Democratic Obama Administration and Republicans who control Congress. He said he pushed hard for funding passed last year that opens the door to hiring 15 new rail and hazardous material inspectors and retaining 45 rail safety positions.

“And we can use more,” the senator said.

Others heard him including the Association of American Railroads, a policy, research and technology entity whose members include all major North American freight carriers and Amtrak.

“America’s freight rail industry supports tougher tank car specifications and, for years, our association has called for stronger federal standards for tank cars,” Greenberg said.

As the Department of Transportation formulated its proposal last fall, the association submitted to the department what it called a comprehensive safety package for stronger tank cars.

Greenberg said it addressed increased shell thickness, use of jacket protection, thermal protection, full-height head shields, appropriately sized pressure relief devices, bottom-outlet handle protection and top-fittings protection.

CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle echoed Greenberg, saying CSX collaborated with the association and other industry partners in developing comments on the proposed new rules.

“Railroads have dramatically improved safety over the last three decades,” Greenberg said. That includes an investment of more than $575 billion since 1980 into the nation’s freight rail network.

Greenberg said freight railroads project spending $29 billion this year on safety-enhancing infrastructure and equipment.

“That said, we recognize more has to be done to ensure the safe movement of this product,” Greenberg said.

That came to light at 10:56 p.m. June 7 when a CSX train headed from New Castle to Connellsville crossed the trestle alongside the Jerome Bridge. Ten of 88 train cars derailed.

Three hung for a time over the Youghiogheny River as well as boats docked at the Marina.

“You could tell the wheels were not on the rail, even before the crash,” said Ashley Bound of Elizabeth. “We were in a boat about 50 feet away and, when I saw all the sparks, I said: ‘I don’t think that’s supposed to happen.’ I was freaking out. It was scary.”

Officials said no one was injured, no chemicals spilled and most cars were empty or carried scrap metal. CSX said a car with “light petroleum” remained upright and did not leak.

Casey referred to derailments last month in Uniontown and Philadelphia as well as the Feb. 13, 2014, derailment of 21 Norfolk Southern rail cars hauling propane gas and Canadian crude oil through Vandergrift.

There cars crashed into the MSI Corp. specialty metals factory. One car spilled 1,000 gallons of heavy crude, but no spillage reached the nearby Kiskiminetas River.

On Jan. 22 in Uniontown seven cars filled with sand for use in the Marcellus shale industry turned over within 2 feet of homes along Locust and East Penn streets.

According to various reports, 11 cars in a CSX train came off the tracks in South Philadelphia on Jan. 31, but the cars remained upright and no chemical leaks were detected.

“Pennsylvania has borne the brunt of many of these derailments,” Casey said. “It’s important for residents to have the peace of mind in knowing that the necessary actions are being taken to improve safety on our nation’s railways.” Carriers serving area towns say they agree.

“Safety is CSX’s highest priority, and we are sensitive to the concerns of the communities where we operate regarding the increasing volume of crude oil that is being moved by train,” Doolittle said.

“Norfolk Southern every day shoulders the obligation of being a common carrier, which means when a shipper gives us a hazardous materials tank car that meets current federal safety standards, we must haul it,” Norfolk Southern spokesman Dave Pidgeon said. “No matter what comes out of proposed new regulations, Norfolk Southern wants the safest tank car to be moving on our network because safety is our top priority — safety of our employees, safety of our customers’ products, safety of the communities in which we operate.”