Tablet Business

Regulator declines to set date for new rail tank car safety rules

The chief of a federal agency tasked with improving the safety of crude oil shipments by rail declined Wednesday to give lawmakers a date for new tank car rules that railroads and safety officials have sought for years.

Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, also testified before a House subcommittee that tank car fixes aren’t “a silver bullet” and areonly “one piece of the mitigative puzzle” in making crude oil transportation safer.

The rail industry petitioned the agency three years ago for a rule on tank cars, but the process didn’t begin until last September and could take another year to finish. Lawmakers expressed their frustration at the delay and the uncertainty it creates.

“Set a deadline,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

The deaths of 47 people in Quebec after a crude oil train derailed last summer amplified years of warnings from the National Transportation Safety Board that general service tank cars are not well-suited to carry flammable materials because of their tendency to puncture in derailments.

Subsequent derailments in Alabama and North Dakota further cast doubt on the older less-protected DOT-111A-type tank cars.

“Quite simply,” NTSB member Robert Sumwalt testified, “their continued use poses an unacceptable public risk.”

The head of the railroad industry’s principal advocacy group told lawmakers that rail companies agree with the NTSB. The Association of American Railroads didn’t wait for regulators to make a move before requiring higher tank car standards on its own.

“There is some concern and doubt as to whether we can move crude safely,” said Edward Hamberger, the group’s president and CEO. “The answer to that is ‘yes.’ ”

Hamberger said the industry favors that such “legacy” cars be phased out of crude oil transportation or retrofitted with better safety protections. New cars, he said, should be built with thicker shells, thermal insulation, stronger housings for valves and outlets, and steel plates at the vulnerable heads — the ends of each car.

For the most part, railroads don’t own the tank cars in which crude is shipped. But last week, Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway, the nation’s leading hauler of crude oil in trains, ordered 5,000 new, better-protected tank cars. At an estimated $150,000 each, the railroad would need to spend $750 million on the order.

“BNSF is stepping forward and putting their money where their mouth is,” Hamberger said.

A BNSF train hauling Bakken crude derailed near Casselton, N.D., in December, igniting an enormous fire and spilling more than 475,000 gallons of crude. No one was injured.

Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, said the railroad’s purchase “shows the private sector can do the right thing.”

DeFazio accused regulators of “20 years of inaction” for failing to heed the NTSB recommendations.

“We are drafting the rules as we speak,” Quarterman said. “We need to get this right.”