WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday announced steps to improve the safety of shipping crude oil by rail, but unlike in Canada, it is taking a voluntary approach to the phaseout of older tank cars long known to be vulnerable in derailments.
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.
The cars have performed poorly in the past several years in derailments involving ethanol, and more recently crude oil.
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 phaseout of older tank cars.
The department did match Canada's requirement that railroads disclose to state and county emergency management officials the routing, volume and frequency of crude oil shipments.
After a CSX train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Va., last Wednesday, the city's mayor said he wasn't aware that the shipments had been passing through his community every day since December.
Minnesota has become a major thoroughfare for North Dakota's crude-by-rail industry, with an estimated eight oil trains, each with about 100 tank cars, traveling through the state daily. About six trains carrying oil, and one carrying the similarly hazardous ethanol, pass through the Twin Cities each day, according to the state Transportation Department.
In response to that traffic, the Legislature is finalizing a measure to increase the number of state rail inspectors, boost funding for local emergency response equipment and training, and reduce the number of railroad grade crossings along oil train routes.
Differences between House and Senate versions of the crude oil emergency bills were being ironed out at the State Capitol this week. A stricter House bill would apply the regulations not just to oil trains, but also to pipelines, and set standards for how quickly companies must respond to spills.
"We don't know what is going through our communities, not even the emergency responders know," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, the sponsor of the House measure. "We have got to get that information."
Ed Greenberg, spokesman for Canadian Pacific, one of the major oil haulers in Minnesota, said it was still reviewing the order and advisory, but will take steps to comply. "For many years, our railroad has shared sensitive information with first responders," he said.
BNSF Railway, the largest carrier of North Dakota crude oil, said in an e-mail that "safety of the communities where we operate is our highest concern" and the company already makes commodity information available upon request to state agencies and emergency responders.
Both railroads said they support the government's push for stronger tank cars.
At the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, officials were reviewing the order late Wednesday to determine the implications, said Julie Anderson, a department spokeswoman.
'Not a serious effort'
The order to release more information won't mean that the public will get it, said Fred Millar, an independent consultant on hazmat risk.
"This is not a serious effort to get the information out to the public," Millar said. "It is basically endorsing the railroads' own black hole process."
Hornstein said the federal government needs to "close the loophole" that exempts transportation companies from releasing information about hazards under an existing right-to-know law. That law, which allows people to look up chemical risks in their neighborhoods on a federal website, applies only to stationary hazards like oil storage tanks.
Railroads are not required to disclose detailed information on hazardous materials shipments to state and local officials. But multiple rail accidents involving crude in the past several months have put pressure on the industry and its regulators.
"All options are on the table when it comes to improving the safe transportation of crude oil," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement, "and today's actions, the latest in a series that make up an expansive strategy, will ensure that communities are more informed and that companies are using the strongest possible tank cars."
Last week, the same day of the Lynchburg derailment, the department sent a package of proposed regulations to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review.
The process can take at least 90 days, and until it's complete, the details will not be made public.
For community and environmental activists who have been pushing for more aggressive action from the DOT, Wednesday's announcement was a disappointment.
"Without a mandatory requirement and a strict time line, it doesn't do the job," said Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River program director for Riverkeeper, a river conservation group.
Lawmakers expressed some skepticism as well.
"I'm concerned that calls for action without clear guidelines won't actually do much to improve safety," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.
Staff writer David Shaffer contributed to this report.