Feds propose new rules to prevent oil fires from train crashes
Struggling to balance safety against fracking-boom economic benefits

Associated Press

Oct. 6, 2014

WASHINGTON - Responding to a series of fiery train crashes, the government proposed rules Wednesday to phase out tens of thousands of older tank cars that carry increasing quantities of crude oil and other highly flammable liquids through America’s towns and cities.  

But many details were put off until later as regulators struggle to balance safety against the economic benefits of a fracking boom that has sharply increased U.S. oil production.

Accident investigators have complained for decades that older tank cars, known as DOT-111s, are too easily punctured or ruptured, spilling their contents when derailed. Since 2008, there have been 10 significant derailments in the U.S. and Canada in which crude oil has spilled from ruptured tank cars, often igniting and resulting in huge fireballs. The worst was a runaway oil train that exploded in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic a year ago, killing 47 people.

Derailment danger hit uncomfortably close to home recently when two trains collided just south of Highway 144 in Slinger, derailing three engines and 10 rail cars.

No fire resulted, and neither train was transporting oil - three cars carried fracking sand, with seven others bearing plastic, lumber and steel. But the crash spilled some 4,000 gallons of fuel from the trains’ engines, leading law enforcement to evacuate about 100 homes within half a mile of the accident. And the crash occurred on a rail line that extends to Waukesha’s tracks, giving pause to some folks in these parts.


DOT: Bakken oil more volatile than lighter crudes

In a report released along with the rules, the Department of Transportation concluded that oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana, where fracking methods have created an oil boom, is more volatile than is typical for light, sweet crudes.  

The oil industry immediately challenged that conclusion.

‘‘The best science and data do not support recent speculation that crude oil from the Bakken presents greater than normal transportation risks,’’ said American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard. ‘‘DOT needs to get this right and make sure that its regulations are grounded in facts and sound science, not speculation.’’  

Rail shipments of crude have skyrocketed from a few thousand carloads a decade ago to 434,000 carloads last year. The Bakken now produces over 1 million barrels per day, and production is increasing. Congress, fearing another Lac-Megantic, has been pressuring regulators to put new safety rules in place as quickly as possible.  

The proposal also includes ethanol, which is transported in the same kind of tank cars. From 2006 to 2012, there were seven train derailments in which tank cars carrying ethanol ruptured. Several crashes caused spectacular fires that emergency responders were powerless to put out.  

The proposed regulations apply only to trains of 20 or more cars. Crude oil trains from the Bakken are typically 100 cars or more.  


Replacement options

The department is weighing three options for replacements. One would  make cars known as ‘‘1232s’’ the new standard for transporting hazardous liquids. Those cars are a stronger design voluntarily agreed to by the railroad, oil and ethanol industries in 2011. But those cars have also ruptured in several accidents.  

The oil and ethanol industries have been urging White House and transportation officials to retain the 1232 design for new cars. The industries have billions of dollars invested in thousands of tank cars that officials say were purchased with the expectation they would last for decades.  

Another option is a design proposed by the Association of American Railroads that has a thicker shell, an outer layer to protect from heat exposure, a ‘‘jacket’’ on top of that, and a better venting valve, among other changes. A third design is nearly identical to the one proposed by railroads, but it also has stronger fittings on the top of the car to prevent spillage during a rollover accident at a speed of 9 mph.   


Reducing speeds on table as well

Regulators also are weighing whether to limit crude and ethanol trains to a maximum of 40 mph throughout the country, or just in ‘‘high-threat’’ urban areas or areas with populations greater than 100,000 people. A high-threat urban area is usually one or more cities surrounded by a 10-mile buffer zone.  Railroads had already voluntarily agreed to reduce oil train speeds to 40 mph in urban areas beginning July 1. Tank cars - including the newer ones built to a tougher safety standard - have ruptured in several accidents at speeds below 30 mph. Regulators said they’re considering lowering the speed limit to 30 mph for trains that aren’t equipped with advanced braking systems.   

The freight railroad industry had met privately with department and White House officials to lobby for keeping the speed limit at 40 mph in urban areas rather than lowering it. Railroad officials say a 30 mph limit would tie up traffic across the country because other freight wouldn’t be able to get past slower oil and ethanol trains.  


Railroad commissioner: Trains ‘still a very safe mode of transportation'

The significant derailments and subsequent conflagrations during the past eight years have inevitably left long, ominous shadows. Wisconsin Railroad Commissioner Jeff Plale has noted, however, that such accidents are quite rare.

“According to the Association of American Railroads, 99.997 percent of all railroad cars make it from point A to point B without incident,” Plale told The Freeman on Tuesday, in the wake of the Slinger crash.

“It’s still a very safe mode of transportation,” he added. There are lots more truck accidents than train accidents.”

Contributing: Sarah Pryor and Steve Van Dien, Freeman Staff