Transportation chief Foxx urges freight railroads to stop using older tank cars
WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced on Wednesday that he has signed a nonbinding safety alert urging freight railroads to stop using older DOT-111 rail tank cars to carry crude oil.
The alert was in response to recent derailments that resulted in explosions and fires, including a 105-tanker car “unit” train that derailed in Lynchburg, Va., a week earlier. The derailment of the CSX train en route from North Dakota to Yorktown, Va., forced the evacuation of a 20-block area in the city's downtown after several tank cars exploded.
“We are lucky no one was killed, let alone hurt,” Foxx told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee at a hearing.
Foxx told the committee that one tanker involved in the Lynchburg derailment was a newer 1232 tanker.
Those tankers are designed to be more resistant to rupture in a derailment. The Lynchburg derailment is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Foxx also signed an emergency order on Wednesday requiring rail freight carriers to tell the State Emergency Response Commission in a given state within 30 days how many trains carrying at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil will be traveling through a state on a weekly basis, how many tank cars will carry crude oil and which counties each train will travel through.
States, in turn, are expected to notify local police, fire and other emergency response agencies, and freight rail carriers are expected to assist with that notification.
The Association of American Railroads said its members will “do all they can to comply with the Department of Transportation's emergency order.”
“Freight railroads have for years worked with emergency responders and personnel to educate and inform them about the hazardous materials moving through their communities,” the association said in a press statement.
Among the derailments where tankers ruptured and spilled oil was a February accident in Vandergrift in which 21 cars jumped the tracks. Two of the cars were carrying butane, and 19 were hauling crude oil less volatile than Bakken crude. Four of the derailed tanker cars in Vandergrift leaked more than 3,500 gallons of oil.
In an Oct. 20, 2006, accident in New Brighton, Beaver County, 23 DOT-111 tankers derailed, fell from a bridge, caught fire and released more than 485,000 gallons of ethanol.
“The information helps. It's a good thing,” said Dan Stevens, Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety spokesman. “We can be a little more prepared on days that it comes through but it could be every day.”
Stevens said he supports moving crude by rail as a means for energy independence.
“We need to move crude by rail. We just have to do it in the safest way possible,” he said. “We just have to make sure everyone does the right thing until all of these tankers are replaced.”
Most crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana is being transported to refineries by rail.
Public concern about trains carrying crude oil has increased because many of the rail shipments travel through densely populated areas to coastal refineries in places such as New Jersey and Delaware.
“All across my state, people are having a debate about this issue,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., told Foxx. “The train route goes through every major city in the Northwest. So this a big issue for us.”
Cantwell said a mandatory rule is needed barring DOT-111 tanker cars from carrying crude oil.
Foxx agreed, describing his latest actions as “interim steps” until a final rule is adopted for a new generation of tank cars.
The Transportation Department sent a proposed rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget last week for review.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., commended Foxx for ordering the notification of local fire, police and emergency services officials.
“A week after I asked him to do it, he's doing it,” Schumer said. “It's easy to do, it doesn't cost much and it could very well save lives.”
Foxx told reporters after the hearing that states will primarily use existing channels of communication in notifying local emergency services agencies.
In New York, there have been four freight rail incidents since December in West Nyack, Cheektowaga, Ulster and Selkirk.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., issued a statement urging the freight rail industry to follow the DOT alert by starting to immediate phase out DOT-111 tank cars for shipping crude oil.
“But we cannot rely on voluntary industry action alone to protect the safety of New Yorkers, and the administration must finish its work to implement a final rule to permanently ban the shipment of crude oil on DOT-111 cars,” Gillibrand said.
Last month the Canadian government announced it was immediately phasing out 5,000 of the least crash-resistant DOT-111 tank cars not equipped with continuous bottom reinforcement because they are at greater risk of failure in a derailment.
Transport Canada also announced it will require all other DOT-111 railroad tank cars to be retrofitted or phased out in three years.
Trib Total Media contributed to this report.