The tank cars involved in back-to-back crude oil train derailments since the weekend were an improved design built since 2011, raising new questions about the safety of the tank car fleet used to haul North America’s energy bounty.
With the latest incidents in West Virginia on Monday and eastern Canada on Sunday, the updated cars, called CPC-1232s, have failed at least four times in spite of their additional puncture and rollover resistance.
The CSX train that derailed in West Virginia was hauling Bakken oil, a lighter crude from North Dakota thought by regulators to be more flammable than the diluted heavy crude the Canadian National Railway train that derailed in northern Ontario was carrying. Though no one was killed or seriously injured in either derailment, they both resulted in massive fires, and in West Virginia, the evacuation of two towns.
A series of derailments across North America since mid-2013 have prompted regulators on both sides of the border to improve tank car construction standards as large volumes of crude oil and ethanol are shipped by rail.
Last April, a CPC-1232 tank car punctured in Lynchburg,Va., releasing about 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil into the James River and starting a massive fire. In January 2014, CPC-1232 cars failed in a derailment in New Augusta, Miss., spilling about 50,000 gallons of thick, heavy Canadian oil, which is not as flammable but difficult to clean up.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation sent a package of new rules to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review, but it will be three months before the rules take effect, and even longer before the sturdier tank cars will be built.
If there are no other delays, it will be October at the earliest before the newer cars will go into production. And depending on how much time the department gives the industry, it could be several years before the existing tank car fleet is retired or updated to meet the new requirements.
Oil and rail industry officials testified in the House of Representatives earlier this month that they needed certainty from regulators on the new tank car design.
In a statement Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx expressed concern for those displaced by Monday’s derailment.
“This incident is yet another urgent reminder that, as our nation experiences a significant rise in domestic energy production,” he said, “we must set a new standard for the safe transportation of those products.”
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, federal investigators in West Virginia were still waiting for the fires to burn out before they could get a closer look at the latest derailment site, along the Kanawha River about 30 miles southeast of Charleston.
Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said six of the agency’s experts were on the scene, as well as an inspector from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, but they could get no closer than 50 yards from the smoldering wreckage.
“Once the site has been determined to be safe, stabilized and secure,” Thompson said, “the FRA and other federal agencies will be able to begin leading the investigation to determine the cause of the derailment.”
The agencies share the task of regulating movements of hazardous materials by rail.
Sarah Feinberg, the FRA’s acting administrator and a West Virginia native, arrived at the derailment site Tuesday. According to the agency, “there is still fire at the site and emergency responders continue to work to stabilize and secure the area so that federal investigators can have access.”
Winter weather posed challenges to officials at the Ontario and West Virginia derailment scenes. As much as 10 inches of snow fell in West Virginia on Monday.
“This accident is another reminder of the need to improve the safety of transporting hazardous materials by rail,” said NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart. “If we identify any new safety concerns as a result of this derailment, the board will act expeditiously to issue new safety recommendations.”
In a remote section of northern Ontario, railroad and firefighting crews faced temperatures of 20 degrees below zero as they let Sunday’s fire burn itself out, according to Patrick Waldron, a spokesman for Canadian National.
Waldron said the spill was contained and that the railroad was working with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment on the cleanup and restoration of the site. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is investigating.