United States proposes tougher rules for moving crude oil, ethanol by rail

A fireball rises from the site of an oil train derailment in December 2013 in Casselton, N.D. The Department of Transportation, concerned about the potential for catastrophic accidents involving oil and ethanol trains, is drafting new tank car regulations.
A fireball rises from the site of an oil train derailment in December 2013 in Casselton, N.D. The Department of Transportation, concerned about the potential for catastrophic accidents involving oil and ethanol trains, is drafting new tank car regulations.
Photo by AP
David Conti
| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 11:24 a.m.

Older rail tankers would be phased out in two years and speed limits would be lowered for trains transporting highly flammable crude oil and other dangerous liquids under rules prompted by a series of derailments such as those in Vandergrift and Philadelphia this year.

The rules proposed on Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation are aimed at reducing the dangers posed to communities by the increased movement by rail of crude oil from the Bakken shale and other dangerous liquids, including ethanol.

“Today's proposal represents our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in announcing the rules.

Carriers also will have to notify states when they are transporting crude oil from the Bakken shale and other liquids through their territories. The rules, which are subject to 60 days of public comment, enforce upgraded testing and classification of mined gases and liquids.

Officials this year asked carriers to stop using the older DOT-111 tank cars and signed an emergency order on state notifications because of explosive derailments in Virginia, North Dakota, Quebec and elsewhere.

Railroad industry leaders noted that they have cooperated with changes.

“This long-anticipated rule-making from DOT provides a much-needed pathway for enhancing the safe movement of flammable liquids in the U.S.,” said Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.

Companies such as Norfolk Southern said they would provide comments to the department in the next 60 days after running data from the government through models.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, has pushed for stronger rules and applauded the department's move, noting the derailments in Pennsylvania.

“While these proposed rules are a step in the right direction, this is an issue that requires constant vigilance and additional action, including further work to ensure that more rail inspectors are on the job and that rail infrastructure is properly maintained,” he said.

Carriers began warning states about shipments in May. Westmoreland County Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator Dan Stevens said the information is relayed to counties by state agencies such as the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Stevens, who mobilized the response to a February derailment that dumped 21 rail cars carrying crude oil and butane off the rails in Vandergrift, said the rail companies are scrambling to buy new tank cars and make improvements.

“They're all wanting to do the right thing,” he said, noting that Norfolk Southern is paying to fly an emergency management official to Colorado next week for special training in dealing with crude oil spills.

The proposal takes its sharpest aim at ethanol and the crude oil shipping out of the Bakken shale region of the Northern Plains. The department said an analysis shows Bakken crude from North Dakota is more volatile and flammable than other forms of oil.

Producers rely heavily on rail to move the crude to refineries on the East and Gulf coasts because of a lack of pipelines to and from the Plains. Last year, the department recorded 415,000 rail-carloads of crude oil moving through the country, compared with 9,500 loads in 2008.

The American Petroleum Institute, the energy industry's largest lobbyist, disputed federal claims that Bakken crude is more volatile than other oil.

“DOT needs to get this right and make sure that its regulations are grounded in facts and sound science, not speculation,” said the group's president and CEO, Jack Gerard.

State and federal officials did not respond to requests for information on how much of the high-hazard flammable liquids originate in or move through Pennsylvania.

Data from the Association of American Railroads show that crude petroleum and natural gas accounted for about 2.2 percent of freight that major rail companies moved last year.

The rules attempt to put into the law several rules and agreements announced this year. The Federal Railroad Administration in April announced a rule requiring two-person crews on crude oil trains and establishing minimum crew size standards for most freight and passenger trains.

In February, the agency issued stricter rules for testing and classifications of crude oil before shipping. That month the Association of American Railroads agreed to voluntary practices that include increased track inspections, better braking systems and a lower speed of 40 mph for trains carrying 20 or more tank cars with crude oil in federally designated, high-threat urban areas.

Under the proposed rules, carriers would have two years to replace the older DOT-111 tankers with cars meeting updated standards. The proposal seeks comments on three possible options for the new standards that cover thicker steel, updated brakes and rollover protection.

Canadian officials have ordered a three-year phase-out of the DOT-111. The San Francisco-based environmental group Earthjustice called for an immediate ban on their use.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412- 388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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