After explosions, senators call for review of oil shipments by rail

A massive fireball from an exploding train car rises into the air just west of Casselton, ND, Dec. 30, 2013. The freight train was carrying 110 cars and went off the tracks west of Casselton and was hit by a second train.
A massive fireball from an exploding train car rises into the air just west of Casselton, ND, Dec. 30, 2013. The freight train was carrying 110 cars and went off the tracks west of Casselton and was hit by a second train. Zuma Press/MCT

Two Senate committee chairmen asked the secretaries of transportation and energy on Thursday to take “prompt and decisive action” to resolve recent safety problems with crude oil transported by rail.

A series of fiery derailments, including a deadly wreck in Quebec last summer and a near-miss last week in North Dakota, have gained the attention of lawmakers, who until this point had said little about the issue.

But with concern growing over both public safety and a potential disruption of oil deliveries amid a North American energy boom, Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources panel, asked both federal departments to work together to resolve the issue quickly “and prevent any further disasters.”

Two DOT agencies, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, have been working on new safety standards for tank cars used in crude oil transportation, aided by the railroad industry. But citing an “alarming” recurrence of derailments and fires involving crude oil trains, Rockefeller and Wyden asked regulators to move faster and requested help from the Energy Department.

“The recent series of explosions and accidents involving oil trains demands an investigation and review of our current safety practices and regulations,” they wrote Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

At least three derailments in the past six months have called into question whether the industry or its regulators made adequate safety preparations for carrying 100-car trains of flammable cargo through rural areas, as well as population centers.

Railroads have become the preferred route to market for crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region, in the absence of new pipelines. The state produces about 1 million barrels of oil a day, and about 70 percent of it moves by rail.

About two-thirds of the 100,000 railroad tank cars used in crude oil transportation have less crash protection. New tank cars have met a higher safety standard since 2011, but their manufacturers are overwhelmed with orders amid the oil rush and can’t build them fast enough to replace older ones.

Railroads are carrying as much or more crude oil as would the controversial proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The senators noted that the North Dakota Pipeline Authority has projected that rail capacity for shipping oil might be double that of pipelines by 2016. Even if it’s built, they said, Keystone would carry only “a fraction” of the crude moving by rail.

“Given this growth and the oil industry’s continued focus on rail shipments, it is imperative that your departments understand and properly evaluate the safety of transporting crude oil by rail,” the senators wrote.

Rockefeller and Wyden cited the derailment and explosion last July in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when an unattended crude oil train rolled down a hill, destroying the center of town and killing 47 people.

They also noted a train carrying crude oil to the Gulf Coast that derailed and caught fire in an Alabama swamp in November, as well as last week’s derailment and explosion in Casselton, N.D. No one was killed or seriously injured in either of those events.

Foxx and Cynthia Quarterman, the head of the federal pipeline agency, met with North Dakota’s two U.S. senators Thursday to discuss their concerns.

While the number of trains fanning out daily from North Dakota to all parts of the country has increased in the past three years, lawmakers have yet to apply their oversight power. Unlike with plane crashes or bridge collapses, no industry or government officials have been called to testify in Congress.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., asked the Republican-led House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Tuesday to hold a hearing on tank car safety. DeFazio is a member of the committee, and oil trains pass through his state.

“I really think that this thing is enough of a mess that Congress needs to weigh in,” he told McClatchy.

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