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Safety official wants rail cars replaced faster after fire

| Sunday, March 12, 2017, 8:54 a.m.

GRAETTINGER, Iowa — A federal safety official called on the rail industry to move faster to upgrade aging rail tankers following a fiery train derailment in rural Iowa that spilled ethanol into a creek and was still burning nearly two days after it erupted.

A Union Pacific train hauling 99 tankers of ethanol from a producer in Omaha, Nebraska, derailed around 1 a.m. Friday on a trestle bridge spanning Jack Creek near Graettinger, about 160 miles northwest of Des Moines. It sent off the tracks 20 tanker cars considered by federal investigators as older, less sturdy tanks set to be phased out over the next dozen years. Fifteen of them caught fire, National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said at a news conference Saturday evening. The train left from a plant in Superior, Iowa, heading for Texas City, Texas, he said.

The derailment in Iowa happened miles from any communities, and no one was injured. The fire occasionally sent explosions and fireballs high into the sky as highly flammable ethanol fumes poured from the ruptured tanks. NTSB officials said that some of the tankers, which carry about 25,000 gallons each, had spilled ethanol into the creek, but environmental officials don't believe it's enough to be toxic to wildlife or fish.

Iowa Natural Resources field office manager Kenneth Hessenius said Friday that checks of water downstream found no obvious signs of a spill.

Two tankers were still burning by 7 p.m. Saturday, Sumwalt said. He said the train consisted solely of an older type of car known as the DOT-111. The agency deemed that tanker a hazard as far back as 1991, noting its steel shell is too thin to resist puncture in accidents. The ends are especially vulnerable to tears from couplers that can fly up after ripping off between cars.

Sumwalt said few crude oil shippers now use the older tankers, after recent emphasis in the industry about the danger of it.

"But meanwhile, people have forgotten about the potential hazard of transporting ethanol using these cars," he said. "We would like to see the shippers accelerate their schedule to get these legacy DOT-111 tank cars out of service when transporting flammable liquids — specifically crude oil and ethanol."

There have been at least seven significant accidents involving trains hauling ethanol since 2006 that released a combined 2 million gallons of the fuel.

"God forbid this happens in a community or with people sitting in their cars waiting for the train to go by. It's not like we haven't seen that kind of tragedy before," said Karen Darch, co-chair of an Illinois-based coalition of local officials, called TRAC, that has pushed for rail safety enhancements. The group was formed after a 2009 derailment of ethanol tankers killed a woman at a crossing in Cherry Valley, Illinois. Darch is village president of neighboring Barrington, Illinois.

Even though investigators have not been able to examine the site of the Iowa derailment because of the fire, they have interviewed the derailed train's two-man crew, as well as the crew of a train that passed through the area around midday Thursday, Sumwalt said.

"Neither of these crews saw anything unusual," he said.

Nothing that would have been an obvious cause of the derailment was spotted from viewing a front-facing video taken from a camera in the derailed train's locomotive, he said.

Federal rules enacted in 2015 call for replacing or retrofitting the aging, soda can-shaped rail tankers by 2029, although most would have to come off the tracks sooner. Those that carry ethanol would have to be replaced by 2023.

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