House subcommittee questions oil train safety after fiery crashes

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2014 - 9:04 AM

Fiery and sometimes deadly derailments have drawn attention to the safety of train cars.


Cars on an oil train roll through Casselton, N.D., where a mile-long train derailed and exploded. No one was killed in the December accident.

Photo: File photo by Jim Wilson • New York Times,

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– Tests of crude oil taken from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation found that nearly one in five samples may have been improperly classified for shipment, a federal regulator said Wednesday.

Cynthia Quarterman, the leader of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), testified to a House subcommittee that 58 samples of Bakken crude inspected for proper classification uncovered 11 potential violations.

Improperly classified crude oil could increase the chances of fires or explosions if oil trains derail and tanker cars rupture. It also leaves local fire officials in the dark about the type of hazardous material they are dealing with when accidents occur.

Quarterman’s presentation came as Congress focuses on recent fiery and sometimes deadly derailments of rail cars carrying crude oil across the United States and Canada. About eight of those oil trains pass through Minnesota daily, including six that travel through the Twin Cities metro area headed to refineries in the east and south.

The agency “has initiated enforcement actions on violators,” Quarterman said in written testimony to the subcommittee. “In addition, as these violations could indicate further noncompliance issues, PHMSA continues to expand the scope of its investigations.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring better testing of Bakken crude, which some experts believe is more volatile than other types of crude oil because of its vapor pressure.

“If you intend to move crude oil by rail, then you must test and classify the material appropriately,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

More frequent track inspections and better informed employees are also part of the plan for accident prevention, a series of government and private rail industry officials told the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

The hearing placed heavy emphasis on proper labeling and better shipping containers for oil products, including building rail cars that can better withstand accidents without rupturing.

The National Transportation Safety Administration (NTSB) has “long-standing concerns” that the current standards for rail cars carrying crude oil pose “an unacceptable public risk,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt told the subcommittee.

There is also a need to make sure that crude oil producers test their product sufficiently before they load it on rail cars, Quarterman said. “We don’t know what we’re getting.” she said.

Details about flash points, boiling points and other measures of volatility help determine how crude oil should be shipped. Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, countered that oil companies test adequately and understand their products, but don’t understand what additional testing the government wants. Gerard insisted that the vapor pressure in Bakken crude is similar to other forms of light crude oil.

Subcommittee member Tim Walz, a Democrat representing Minnesota’s First District, stressed the need to prevent accidents and rail car ruptures.

The tank cars now in use “have done their time,” Walz said. “We have better technology.”

Bakken is ‘new animal’

As for classification issues, Walz called Bakken crude “a new animal” for which testing protocols need to be worked out.

“One thing the public doesn’t understand is that this is a collaboration by necessity,” he said. “The railroads want to know what’s in there, and my first responders want to know what’s in there.”

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  • Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA)

  • Cynthia Quarterman, of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told the subcommittee that 11 potential classification violations were found among 58 samples of Bakken crude. Improperly classified crude could increase the chances of fire or explosion and would hinder proper response to a crisis.

  • Sumwalt

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