Slow pace of oil train fixes draws Senate ire

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2014 - 10:50 AM

On Capitol Hill, senators were told that none of the thousands of inadequately protected rail cars has been removed from service.


An oil train headed for Minnesota rolled through Casselton, N.D., scene of an explosive rail accident in December.

Photo: New York Times file,

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– Virtually all of the potentially unsafe rail cars carrying crude oil across the country remain in service, hauling highly flammable liquid, an official from the American Petroleum Institute (API) testified at a Senate hearing on rail safety Thursday.

API official Prentiss Searles told Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., that to his knowledge the oil and gas industry had retired none of the puncture-prone tankers from their fleets.

The issue arose after Searles testified that 40 percent of the rail cars now hauling crude have updated superstructures designed to keep them intact if they derail.

Heitkamp pressed Searles to clarify his point. The senator explained that crude oil shipments from her state’s Bakken formation are growing so fast that all the newer, safer tanker cars being produced are needed for increased capacity, not replacement.

The tanker fleet “has grown,” Heitkamp said to Searles. “You haven’t taken any [of the more vulnerable cars] off the rails.”

“Not to my knowledge,” Searles replied.

Those cars continue to carry crude oil despite a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determination that “multiple recent serious and fatal accidents reflect substantial shortcomings in tank car design that create an unacceptable public risk.”

In the third quarter of 2013, there were 27,130 tanker cars carrying crude oil that did not meet upgraded voluntary construction standards for newly built tanker cars, according the Railway Supply Institute. Another 29,071 carried ethanol, which is also flammable.

These cars meet the current federal standard for construction, but they are also the cars that the transportation safety board believes pose an “unacceptable risk” for leaks and punctures. The government has been trying to upgrade its standard, but has received some push-back in its rule-making process from the oil and gas industry, which is concerned about the costs of improvements.

Frustration with the speed at which safety reforms are being implemented dominated Thursday’s hearing, which came in the wake of fiery oil train derailments in North Dakota and Canada.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, pointed out to a panel of government regulators and private industry representatives that federal rules for safer tank cars have been 2½ years in the making with no resolution.

“We’re moving as fast as we can,” answered Cynthia Quarterman, head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Her response and those of leaders of the Federal Railroad Administration and Federal Communications Commission, drew an exasperated rebuke from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who chaired the hearing.

“We need to get it right, but we need to get it done,” Blumenthal said.

The volume of crude oil moved by train from production points in the United States to refineries grew from about 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 carloads in 2013. Each tank car holds 25,000 to 30,000 gallons of crude oil.

Virtually all of that oil gets where it is going without incident. But in the very rare exceptions, consequences have been destructive and sometimes deadly. The danger raises the stakes for people living near rail lines in states like Minnesota, where eight oil trains pass on a daily basis, six through the Twin Cities.

The oil and gas industry, which owns or leases most of the rail cars used to ship crude oil, developed a set of voluntary standards for more puncture-proof and leakproof tanker cars. But the NTSB considers the new design inadequate, something the petroleum institute disputes.

“This is shaping up as a regulatory fight,” Heitkamp observed. “This is very problematic from a public ­perspective.”

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  • FILE -- In this June 20, 2013 file photo, black tank cars used to transport crude oil from North Dakota are parked among other rail traffic at a train yard in Tacoma, Wash. Washington lawmakers on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, are considering competing measures that try to address safety issues surrounding the increased number of crude oil trains moving throughout the state. The Senate Ways and Means Committee is taking testimony on a mostly Republican-backed bill. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee is hearing another measure, favored by environmentalists. (AP Photo/Tacoma News Tribune, Lui Kit Wong, File)

  • Robert Sumwalt, right, of the National Transportation Safety Board investigated a rail accident in Casselton, N.D., on Jan. 1.

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