U.S. lags on safety rules for rail cars involved in deadly Canada crash

The Obama administration is nine months behind schedule on a proposal to bolster safety standards for the type of rail car that killed at least 13 people after slamming, filled with U.S. shale oil, into a small Canadian town over the weekend.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration early last year began considering rules to improve freight train safety, including the DOT-111 tank cars involved in Saturday's fatal derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Originally anticipated to reach White House regulatory review in October 2012, the rulemaking plan remains in limbo even as Canadian investigators start homing in on long-identified safety risks involved in shipping hazardous cargo in older versions of the cars.

The American Petroleum Institute has "been working really hard" to ensure that federal regulators embrace recommended changes to safety rules for new DOT-111 cars that it helped develop with the rail industry, the marketing issues manager, Prentiss Searles, said in an interview yesterday.

While Searles professed no knowledge of why PHMSA has not "moved forward," he supported the American Association of Railroads' (AAR) move to stop short of endorsing safety modifications to existing DOT-111s, such as the 34-year-old oil train involved in the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

"We looked at retrofit requirements for the existing tank fleet," Searles said. "What we found was, due to a large number of engineering concerns, it wasn't an effective way to upgrade that system. You could actually create issues that aren't there today."


Both the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and its Canadian counterpart have linked the DOT-111's design to a higher probability of rupture upon impact in the event of an accident, particularly given the rail car's frequent use in shipping ethanol as well as oil.

The DOT-111 carries a "high incidence of tank failure," and the protective upside of stronger construction rules for new cars would "not [be] realized if old and new tank cars are commingled," NTSB hazardous materials investigator Paul Stancil wrote in a PowerPoint presentation last year.

In 2011, AAR's Tank Car Committee ushered in safety upgrades for new DOT-111s, including requirements for thicker heads, low-pressure release valves and puncture-proof shells. It remains unclear how many of the current fleet of tank cars, 69 percent of which are DOT-111, were produced before those new standards took effect.

The railroads, car manufacturers and hazardous cargo shippers that sit on the tank car committee asked PHMSA to modernize its rules in 2011, two years after the fatal derailment of an ethanol train in Cherry Valley, Ill. That panel's "standards today exceed the federal requirements," AAR wrote in a background memo on tank car safety.

Oil on the line

Rail is an increasingly vital option for tight oil producers to move crude out of plays such as North Dakota's Bakken Shale, where about three-quarters of the barrels produced daily in April took the train to refineries (EnergyWire, June 24).

The Lac-Mégantic fatalities have roused some Keystone XL proponents to tout pipelines' safety superiority to rail, suggesting that increased use of pipelines might have averted disaster.

"A lot more should be moved by pipeline," Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in an interview on the derailment yesterday. "I think some of it could have been prevented."

Others in the industry are working to defend the safety record of both rail and pipelines. API senior manager Cindy Schild told reporters yesterday that "we believe in all modes of transportation," promising to work with PHMSA on incorporating the lessons of Lac-Mégantic into final rules "once we have more details" on the incident.

Part of the challenge is logistical: The comparatively short life of shale oil wells compared with oil sands crude facilities makes rail a preferable option for light and tight oil, as Greenpeace Canada energy campaigner Keith Stewart explained in an interview yesterday.

Anyone asking "how is it that [DOT-111s] are still used" despite criticism from U.S. and Canadian safety authorities has a simple answer, said Stewart: "[I]t's cheap. The possibility of catastrophic results was hypothetical until Saturday."

Greenpeace Canada wants to see DOT-111s barred from use to ship petroleum, according to Stewart.

Environmentalists attempting to steer the continental political dialogue toward stronger safety rules for running oil, however, stand to steal attention from their movement's high-profile push to "lock in" Canada's carbon-rich oil sands crude by rejecting KXL and other new infrastructure.

Stewart acknowledged the tension: "We don't want to see better railways so we can do more," he said. "We need to transport less. Part of the problem here is we're cramming more and more oil onto aging infrastructure."

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