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DOT's Emergency Actions on Shipping Bakken Crude by Rail Fall Short

In what is being billed as the first emergency order of more to come, the Department of Transportation (DOT), the federal regulator of transporting crude oil by rail, hopes to quell the growing national furor over what some call 'ticking time bombs'.
May 9, 2014, 6am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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The substandard DOT-111 tank cars, likened to ticking time bombs here by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N,Y.) have drawn the most attention, most recently on April 30 in Lynchburg, Va. where 15 cars of a 105-car, oil-unit train derailed, sending flames 60 feet high. Three cars landed in the James River causing an oil spill that alarmed conservationists and drinking water suppliers.

"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 with flammable liquids," writes Curtis Tate of McClatchy Washington Bureau.

But like other efforts since the beginning of this year involving train speeds, track inspections and routing decisions, DOT’s tank car recommendations are not mandatory. In contrast, Transport Canada two weeks ago required a three-year phase-out of older tank cars.

However, critics were not quelled, including the aforementioned U.S. Senator, who charged that the 'recommendation' doesn't go far enough in protecting upstate N.Y., according to his press release.

In addition to the tank car recommendation, DOT took action to address another troubling aspect of transporting crude-by-rail, the ability of fire departments to respond to emergencies. DOT issued an "Emergency Order requiring all railroads operating trains containing large amounts of Bakken crude oil to notify State Emergency Response Commissions about the operation of these trains through their state," states the DOT press release.

Unless DOT follows-up their recommendation for stronger cars with a mandatory order as was done by Canada, the U.S. risks a scenario whereby the the new and retrofitted models are used north of the border, and the substandard ones used in the U.S., as Kim Mackrael, reporter for Ottawa's Globe and Mail explained to Living on Earth's Steve Curwood on May 2 (listen here).

So if the changes are just Canadian changes, if the United States doesn’t require the same thing, then they may be able to just shift around the cars that they’re using.

CURWOOD: So, in other words, the more dangerous cars would be sent to the US if there’s no rule here.

MACKRAEL: I think that’s a logical conclusion you have to come to at this point.

The American Petroleum Institute, which had issued an earlier statement, would clearly not be happy with such a mandatory order. API "said the industry had been working to upgrade tank cars for three years, and that during the next year "about 60% of railcars will be state-of-the-art," writes The Wall Street Journal's Russell Gold.

However, "the trade association representing railcar builders and car-leasing companies said the advisory doesn't go far enough toward new standards for tank-car construction and retrofitting the existing car fleet," adds Gold.

"With regulatory certainly, the car industry can get working" on retrofits right away, said Thomas Simpson, president of the Railway Supply Institute in Washington, D.C.

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Published on Thursday, May 8, 2014 in The Tribune
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