Economy

Feds reject industry challenges to oil train safety rule

Cars of a BNSF Railway train lie in a jumbled pile after derailing Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, just north of Alma, Wis. About 20,000 gallons of ethanol was spilled. An oil train derailed on Sunday in Watertown, Wis., on Canadian Pacific track, spilling 1,000 gallons.
Cars of a BNSF Railway train lie in a jumbled pile after derailing Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, just north of Alma, Wis. About 20,000 gallons of ethanol was spilled. An oil train derailed on Sunday in Watertown, Wis., on Canadian Pacific track, spilling 1,000 gallons. AP

The U.S. Department of Transportation has rejected several appeals by industry groups to its rule issued in May on the safety of trains carrying large quantities of crude oil and ethanol.

The department also agreed with tribal groups in the Pacific Northwest that had expressed concern about proposed changes to notification requirements to states for large rail shipments of crude oil.

The trade groups, which represented railroads, refiners, and chemical companies, had objected to a variety of components of the rule relating to its scope, to the timeline for completing a retrofit and replacement of tank cars used to carry flammable liquids, what level of fire protection the cars should have and whether they should be equipped with advanced electronic brakes.

The department rejected all of those appeals, as well as one by the Columbia River Treaty Tribes and the Northwest Treaty Tribes, which had argued that the department had not formally consulted with tribal groups on the rule and it should reopen a notice and comment period for them to participate.

However, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration did agree with the tribes on one issue: the rule’s effective abandonment of a requirement that railroads hauling large quantities of crude oil notify state emergency officials.

After the final rule was published in May, the department received feedback from tribal authorities and others expressing “intense concern” about the decision to withdraw a May 2014 emergency order requiring the notification of shipments of 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude.

Based on that feedback, the department in late May issued a notice that it would continue the notification requirement indefinitely and proposed making it permanent. In July, the Federal Railroad Administration warned railroads that the emergency order remained in effect and they must continue to comply with it.

In its response Monday, the department said its actions had satisfied the tribes’ concern.

“In accordance with the notice, PHMSA continues to consider options for codifying the central aspects of the order permanently in a future rulemaking action,” it wrote. “The treaty tribes will have the opportunity to comment on these future regulatory proposals in the course of that rulemaking proceeding.”

10 Number of oil train and ethanol derailments in North America in 2015 where cargo was spilled.

Railroad industry groups opposed the notification requirement because numerous states released the oil train reports to the public under their open records laws. McClatchy sought such records from 30 states last year and received partial or complete responses from all but about half a dozen.

The railroads insisted that the information contained in the reports, including the routes of the trains and their approximate weekly frequencies was both business and security sensitive.

While a few states agreed, most did not. The railroads lost bids in Pennsylvania, Texas and Maryland to prevent those states from releasing the oil train reports to McClatchy and other news organizations.

There have been 10 derailments since the beginning of this year in North America where crude oil or ethanol was spilled, including two over the weekend in Wisconsin.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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