Trump administration repeals train safety regulation, triggering new oil spill fears

The Trump administration has repealed a safety regulation governing trains that carry large quantities of oil, sparking new fears among Washington state officials and environmental activists that devastating oil spills could be more likely.

The Department of Transportation announced last week that trains carrying flammable liquids such as crude oil and ethanol would no longer be required to install electronically controlled pneumatic braking systems, an Obama-era rule instituted to decrease the chance of train derailments.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, blasted the decision as a “reckless disregard for the life and property of all who live or work along the rail tracks” that transport oil.

“I fear the day we witness a destructive or deadly derailment that could have been prevented with readily available technology,” he said in a news release.

But the railroad industry was pleased by the administration’s change.

The Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group that appealed the original decision to require the new braking system and argued that the cost of installing brakes was much higher than the department’s estimate, said it “welcomes this final decision.”

“The Department of Transportation let the data drive its decision regarding ECP brakes,” AAR spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek said. “After a thorough review, it found that the ECP brake proposal simply does not pass muster. AAR appreciates the department’s thoughtful consideration of this matter.”

oil trains derailment
This aerial view provided by the Washington State Department of Ecology shows scattered and burned oil tank cars on June 4, 2016, after the train derailed and burned near Mosier, Ore. Washington Department of Ecology AP

Railroad companies and manufacturers of train cars benefit from the decision, because they would have been charged with installing the new braking equipment, said Matthew Rosenberg, a senior analyst at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress’ independent watchdog arm that studied ECP brakes.

The Department of Transportation’s original analysis of ECP brakes, which transmit an electronic signal throughout train cars that allows for faster stopping compared to conventional brakes, found that they “can reduce the number of cars in a derailment that puncture and release their contents by almost 20 percent compared to other braking technologies.”

Cynthia Quarterman, who led the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration during the Obama administration, has said ECP brakes “would stop the pileup of the cars when there’s a derailment or when there’s a need to brake in a very quick fashion.”

And the National Transportation Safety Board has conducted studies showing ECP brakes “have a real measurable safety benefit,” according to NTSB spokesman Christopher O’Neil.

But data on the use and effectiveness of the brakes is limited, and railroad companies have disputed their usefulness.

Joe Delcambre, a spokesman for the PHMSA, which finalized last week’s ruling, referred to the department’s press release and said he was not authorized to comment on the new decision, which Inslee called a “biased cost-benefit analysis.”

The Department of Transportation said an updated analysis of the new braking system determined the cost of implementing the system — between $375 and $491 million — vastly outweighed the potential benefits. The department’s new report estimated hundreds of millions less in savings than the initial analysis.

Benefits of installing the brakes were calculated by looking at the “reduction in the severity of derailments and the associated damages, including deaths and injuries, property damage and environmental contamination, and savings to the industry,” according to a Department of Transportation fact sheet.

The department’s original analysis estimated $254 million in benefits to businesses and $215 to $358 million in savings related to safety. But it revised those numbers in its new analysis to $131 to $198 million in total benefits, Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg believes the lower estimate stems from a decrease in the amount of oil being transported by train since the initial analysis. Because of that, there’s less danger to mitigate, so installing the brakes wouldn’t save as much, he said.

But Rebecca Ponzio, a program director with the Washington Environmental Council, an advocacy organization, said the dangers posed by oil trains are “not a theoretical threat.” She referenced an oil train derailment in Mosier, Oregon, in 2016, at the border with Washington state, “which really brought home” the danger.

That derailment spilled 42,000 gallons of oil, sparked a huge blaze, forced some Mosier residents to evacuate, shut a sewage treatment plant down and caused some oil to spill into the Columbia River.

“It was a disaster zone,” Ponzio said.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s model of the accident concluded that ECP brakes would have “provided additional train control, potentially shortening the stopping distance, and leading to a less severe derailment.” Two tank cars could have avoided derailment and one might have avoided being punctured, the FRA said.

Spilled oil that seeps into marine habitats can kill animals and plants, and past oil train derailments and crashes have caused explosions and fires that have killed people.

Each year, 20 billion gallons of oil are transported by trains, pipelines and ships through Washington, which has five oil refineries, according to the state’s Department of Ecology.

The only serious oil spill caused by a train in Washington in the past 10 years occurred in 2014, when more than 1,600 gallons of oil leaked from a rail car in Blaine, according to the Office of Hazardous Materials Safety.

The cause of the leak was undetermined.

Kellen Browning, 202-383-6102, @kellen_browning