May 8, 2014

U.S. reveals steps to improve oil train safety

The Transportation Department’s tank car recommendations are not mandatory.

The Transportation Department announced steps Wednesday to improve the safety of shipping crude oil by rail, but unlike its Canadian counterpart, it is taking a voluntary approach to the phaseout of older tank cars long known to be vulnerable in derailments.

The department recommended that petroleum producers that ship by rail discontinue the use of older DOT-111 model tank cars. The National Transportation Safety Board has warned for years that the cars punctured easily in derailments, leading to spills and fires.

The cars have fared poorly the past several years in derailments involving ethanol and, more recently, crude oil.

But like other efforts since the beginning of this year involving train speeds, track inspections and routing decisions, the department’s tank car recommendations are not mandatory.

In contrast, Transport Canada two weeks ago required a three-year phaseout of older tank cars.

The department did match Canada’s requirement that railroads disclose to state and county emergency management officials the routing, volume and frequency of crude oil shipments.

After a CSX train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Va., on April 30, the mayor said he wasn’t aware that the shipments had been passing through his community every day since December.

Railroads are not required to give state and local officials detailed information on hazardous-materials shipments. But multiple rail accidents involving crude have pressured the industry and its regulators.

“All options are on the table when it comes to improving the safe transportation of crude oil,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement, “and today’s actions, the latest in a series that make up an expansive strategy, will ensure that communities are more informed and that companies are using the strongest possible tank cars.”

Last week, the same day of the Lynchburg derailment, the department sent a package of proposed regulations to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review.

The process can take at least 90 days, and until it’s complete, the details will not be made public.

For community and environmental activists who have been pushing for more aggressive action, Wednesday’s announcement was a disappointment.

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