California senators ask DOT to expand crude by rail notifications

The U.S. Department of Transportation should expand its requirement for railroads to notify first responders of large shipments of Bakken crude oil to include other hazardous materials, California’s U.S. senators wrote Monday.

In a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer wrote that his department’s May emergency order doesn’t go far enough because it excludes Bakken shipments under 1 million gallons, as well as any quantity of other kinds of crude oils and flammable liquids.

The order, which DOT seeks to make permanent as part of a larger rulemaking on oil train safety, doesn’t apply to tar sands crude from western Canada, as well as lighter crudes from Colorado and Texas, ethanol and dozens of other substances.

Feinstein and Boxer co-signed the letter with Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

“We believe the limited scope would keep many towns, cities and rural areas in our states in the dark about substantial volumes of non-Bakken oil and other flammable liquids traveling in large volumes through their communities,” the four Democrats wrote.

The senators filed a longer document Monday with DOT outlining their request. Tuesday was the last day that public comments could be submitted for the proposed rules, which DOT would like to implement by year’s end.

DOT began requiring the notifications following a series of spills and fires resulting from derailments of Bakken crude oil trains. A July 2013 derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people. Subsequent accidents in Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia were serious, but without injuries or fatalities.

But the senators noted that other serious accidents had occurred with other flammable liquids in quantities of less than a million gallons, equivalent to about 35 railcars.

A July 2012 derailment near downtown Columbus, Ohio, of three ethanol cars resulted in a fire that burned for hours and required an evacuation within a mile radius.

A January derailment in New Augusta, Miss., spilled 50,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into a waterway. A May derailment in La Salle, Colo., spilled 6,500 gallons of crude from the state’s Niobrara Basin.

None of these trains fell within the current DOT requirements for reporting to emergency responders.

Feinstein, Boxer and the Oregon senators asked Foxx to expand the notifications to all Class 3 flammable liquids, which include all types of crude oil and ethanol, and to lower the reporting threshold from 35 cars to 20, consistent with the department’s definition of a “high-hazard flammable train.”

Much of the oil moving to California by rail is coming from sources other than North Dakota’s Bakken region.

According to the most recent figures from the California Energy Commission, the state imported more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil in July. North Dakota and Utah each supplied about 25 percent, while New Mexico and Canada each supplied another 20 percent. The balance came from Colorado, Wyoming and other states.

Trains could deliver 150 million barrels a year of crude oil to California by 2016, a quarter of the state’s petroleum supply, according to projections by state officials.

An earlier version of this post misspelled the last name of Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.