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.
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.
hit uncomfortably close to home recently when two trains collided
just south of Highway 144 in Slinger, derailing three engines and 10
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
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
regulations apply only to trains of 20 or more cars. Crude oil
trains from the Bakken are typically 100 cars or more.
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
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
speeds on table as well
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
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.
commissioner: Trains ‘still a very safe mode of transportation'
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
“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