A much-anticipated regulation to improve the safety of crude oil and ethanol trains was sent to the White House for review Thursday, the final stage in a process some lawmakers and industry officials say has moved too slowly.
The U.S. Department of Transportation submitted the rulemaking package to the Office of Management and Budget nearly a week after its self-imposed deadline of Jan. 30.
The move came a day after a train carrying ethanol derailed along a remote stretch of the Mississippi River in Iowa, igniting a fire and spilling a yet-to-be-measured quantity of the flammable liquid into the river.
Among other issues, the regulation would require a stronger construction standard for the DOT-111 tank car, a workhorse in use for decades but one known to fail in derailments.
No one was injured in this week’s derailment in Iowa, but the incident put broader issues surrounding crude oil and ethanol transportation back in the spotlight, including the crashworthiness of the tank cars, as well as track and equipment inspection and maintenance and operating practices.
In a statement, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the department has made the tank car rule a top priority and has done everything within its power to improve the safety of crude oil trains.
The Transportation Department’s comprehensive rule attemtps to address all of those items at once. However, some industry officials and lawmakers have urged that the tank car design be considered separately.
“My concern is we get the design out,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who said he spoke to Foxx on Thursday. “We needed it last fall; we need it now.”
On Tuesday, executives involved in the production and transportation of crude oil told the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials that no one wants to buy new tank cars until they know what the regulation is. As of last month, the final rule was scheduled for publication in mid-May.
That “dramatically confirms my sense of urgency,” said DeFazio, the panel’s ranking member.
The combined rulemaking has been a sticking point between the railroads, which want stronger tank cars but are more reluctant to embrace operational changes, and tank car owners and manufacturers, which say railroads need to prevent trains from derailing.
In a statement Friday, the Railway Supply Institute Committee on Tank Cars, which represents tank car manufacturers, noted that human error and track defects cause most derailments and that a new tank car design isn’t enough.
“The rule must also include a comprehensive focus on rail operations and track maintenance and inspection,” said Tom Simpson, the committee’s president. “Enhanced tank car structural requirements alone will not address the root cause of the problem.”
According to industry estimates, about 500,000 carloads of crude oil moved by rail last year, up from 400,000 in 2013 and 9,500 in 2008. That’s in addition to 300,000 carloads of ethanol. Both commodities are largely transported in the DOT-111 tank car or an enhanced car the industry began building in 2011 with better puncture and rollover protections.
Foxx has been dealing with the issue since his first week in office. On July 6, 2013, a train carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, devastating the town’s center and killing 47 of its residents. Other fiery derailments in Alabama, North Dakota, New Brunswick and Virginia resulted in no fatalities, but raised safety concerns in communities nationwide.
Foxx called it “a highly complex issue, consuming massive staff time, scientific study, dialogue with stakeholders and experts, and coordination across borders.”
“The department has and will continue to put a premium on getting this critical rule done as quickly as possible,” Foxx said, “but we’ve always committed ourselves to getting it done right.”