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Railroads back proposal to retrofit flammable liquids tankers

| Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

OMAHA — Proposed safety standards for rail cars that haul flammable liquids gained support from railroads on Thursday, but it's not yet clear whether the companies that own most of those cars will support the upgrades to prevent leaks.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is considering a plan intended to fix a dangerous design flaw in a rail car commonly used to haul oil and other hazardous liquids from coast to coast.

Safety experts say the soda-can shaped car, known as the DOT-111, has a tendency to split open during derailments and other major accidents.

Concerns about the tank cars are high because of the fiery train crash in July in Lac Megantic, Quebec — near the Maine border — that killed 48 people and because railroads are hauling significantly more crude oil.

Railroads are supporting new safety standards for rail cars that haul flammable liquids to address flaws that can allow crude oil, ethanol and other substances to leak during accidents.

The Association of American Railroads said on Thursday that railroads support making upgrades to the fleet of 92,000 tank cars that carry flammable liquids. Of those, 14,000 are newer cars built to current safety standards.

“We want to aggressively move on phasing these out,” Ed Hamberger, president of the railroad trade group, said of the older cars.

Hamberger said the new standards can help make the tank cars safer, but better cars are only one part of the overall effort to ensure safety.

It is an opportune time to improve safety standards because many oil producers and refiners are investing in new cars to handle the surge in domestic oil production. The number of carloads of oil that railroads are delivering jumped to 233,811 last year from 10,000 in 2009, and in the first nine months of 2013, railroads delivered 319,901 carloads of oil.

Railroads generally don't own the tank cars. The oil and chemical companies that own them will likely comment on the proposed rule before the agency's Dec. 5 deadline.

An agency spokeswoman said officials want to gather as many comments as possible. A final rule isn't expected until next year.

The proposed changes include requiring cars to have a thicker steel shell, better heat protection and better protection for valves on the tank cars. The rules would require high-capacity relief valves and new designs to prevent outlets on the bottom of the car from opening during an accident.

Last year, The Associated Press reviewed 20 years of federal rail accident data involving DOT-111 cars used to haul ethanol and found that the cars had been breached in at least 40 serious accidents since 2000. In the previous decade, there were just two breaches.

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