Railroads, feds agree on crude safety
BILLINGS, Mont. — Railroads that haul volatile crude shipments have reached an agreement with federal transportation officials to adopt wide-ranging, voluntary safety measures after a string of explosive and deadly accidents.
The agreement between the Transportation Department and the Association of American Railroads was obtained Friday by The Associated Press.
It calls for railroads to slow down oil trains from 50 mph to 40 mph through major cities. Railroads must inspect tracks more frequently and bolster emergency response planning along routes that carry trains hauling up to 3 million gallons of crude each.
The safety steps would begin going into effect in late March and be fully in place by July 1.
After a boom in domestic drilling in recent years, oil trains now travel thousands of miles from oil producing areas — including the Northern Plains — to coastal refineries and shipping terminals along the Mississippi River and other major waterways.
The agreement doesn't resolve concerns over another fuel — ethanol, which also has led to a spate of accidents as production has increased. The pact leaves out tens of thousands of flawed tank cars that carry crude and ethanol and are known to split open during derailments. Railroads and federal officials said they would address that issue separately.
At least 10 times since 2008, freight trains hauling oil across North America have derailed and spilled significant quantities of crude. Most of the accidents touched off fires or catastrophic explosions.
The deadliest wreck killed 47 people in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
Twenty-one Norfolk Southern railroad cars hauling explosive propane gas and Canadian crude oil derailed Feb. 13 from at least 100 more tankers in Westmoreland County. The cars skipped a track between the Kiski River and a Sherman Avenue neighborhood in Vandergrift before crashing into MSI Corp., a specialty-metals factory.
Norfolk Southern estimated about 1,000 gallons of heavy crude spilled from a single tanker car. No residents or rail workers were hurt, and officials said the river was not harmed.
By taking voluntary measures, railroads will be able to act far more quickly than if they waited for safety rules to be drafted and approved by the government, said Robert Chipkevich, former director of rail and hazardous materials accident investigations at the National Transportation Safety Board. But he added that regulators would have little leverage to enforce the industry's commitments.
“It's a positive step,” Chipkevich said. “But certainly there's nothing to say they would have to continue following those practices. The only way you can enforce something like that would be for regulators to publish regulations and do periodic oversight.”
The Association of American Railroads represents all of the major railroads in the United States, Canada and Mexico, which are expected to sign on.
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