Tougher federal rules for hauling crude oil by rail are moving slowly toward adoption in Washington, D.C. It’s becoming clearer that the government isn’t moving quickly enough or with tough enough standards. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is right to push for tougher action.
Last week, Cantwell announced her intention to introduce legislation that would require thicker hulls and a speedier phase-out of first-generation tankers that the oil and railroad industries already want to replace over time with a safer, second-generation model known as the CPC-1232.
The Seattle-area Democrat wants a standard that is even higher – with even thicker tanker hulls – than the second-generation tankers that would be required under the draft standards. Cantwell telegraphed her plans during a Senate committee hearing where Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx testified about his agency’s efforts to boost safety.
The U.S. DOT had been expected to issue rules in January that would require the thicker hulls and a phase-out of DOT-111 model tankers that have proven to be inadequate for volatile oils from the Bakken fields of North Dakota and Montana. Rules now are due in May.
Meanwhile, several derailments – including five trains hauling crude oil in the five weeks in the U.S. and Canada – have made it clearer that even the second-generation tankers, which the USDOT was considering as a new standard, may not be sufficient to avoid dangerous explosions.
The partial derailment of a 109-car train last month in Carbon, West Virginia, was one recent indication. All told, 28 cars went off the rails, and 19 of the CPC-1232s exploded. Late Thursday, another train derailed in Galena, Illinois; five of the CPC-1232 tankers were reported ruptured and on fire, and the government said the spilled oil threatened the Mississippi River.
Under DOT’s draft plans, DOT-111 tankers would be phased out for crude oil shipments by October 2017 and for other flammable liquids by 2020. Rail and oil industries have said that schedule could cause a shortage as they seek to retrofit the 143,000 tank cars in need of upgrades. Canada, which is home to the 2013 oil explosion that killed 47 people at Lac-Megantic, has sought a faster phase-out by May 2017.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway says its safety record is good in Washington since the first crude came into the state by rail in late 2012. It supports a phase-out of the older tank cars and has already instituted a fee structure that rewards oil shippers that use the newer tanker models.
Like Cantwell, state officials have grown worried, and the state House passed a bill late Thursday that would bolster state oversight of rail shipments of crude oil and improve spill responses. House Bill 1449 requires industry to notify the state of incoming shipments so that first-responders are better informed in the event of a conflagration.
Railroad reports to the state indicate that about 19 trains, hauling at least 1 million gallons each, travel through Washington each week. These include 11 to 16 each week through Thurston and Pierce counties. The state Department of Ecology estimates traffic could mushroom to 137 weekly trains by 2020 if all proposed oil terminals and refinery expansion projects are permitted and utilized.
The U.S. DOT’s own risk assessments suggest an average of 10 derailments a year nationwide of trains hauling crude oil or ethanol can be expected.
Bakken oil has helped wean the nation off imports, but community safety should not be the price of energy independence.