Safety rules for oil tankers are off track, say 2 camps

Environmental groups, industry not satisfied

New safety regulations announced Friday by the United States and Canada will allow the railroad oil tankers involved in several recent explosions to remain in service for up to five years.

The regulations impose enhanced design standards for tankers built after Oct. 1 and establish a schedule for strengthening or eliminating existing tankers. They also require enhanced braking systems that U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said “can be the difference between a contained fire and a catastrophe.”

Mr. Foxx and Canada’s transport minister, Lisa Raitt, announced the new regulations at a briefing in Washington. The U.S. secretary called them “a comprehensive approach to safety that will prevent accidents from happening, mitigate them if they do and facilitate emergency response.”

The rules, which take effect Oct. 1, quickly drew criticism from environmental groups, who said they were insufficient, and from the railroad industry, which said the requirement for enhanced braking was costly and unnecessary.

“The Department of Transportation got it wrong with its so-called safety regulations for oil tank cars. Rather than accept these wholly inadequate rules, which jeopardize health and safety of communities along rail lines, the administration should place a moratorium on bomb trains outright,” said Lena Moffitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels Campaign, one of a coalition of groups objecting to the timetable.

A leading voice of the rail industry, Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, denounced a requirement that crude oil trains be equipped with advanced braking systems called Electronically Controlled Pneumatic brakes, or ECPs, by 2021. Oil trains not in compliance would face a 30 mph speed limit.

“First and foremost, the DOT has no substantial evidence to support a safety justification for mandating ECP brakes, which will not prevent accidents,” he said.

“This decision not only threatens the operational management of the U.S. rail system, but trains moving 30 mph will compromise network capacity by at least 30 percent. The far-reaching effects of this decision will be felt by freight and passenger customers alike. Slow-moving trains will back up the entire rail system,” Mr. Hamberger said.

Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, said, “We support upgrades to the tank car fleet and want them completed as quickly as realistically possible. The rail car manufacturing industry’s own calculations show it does not have the shop capacity to meet the retrofit timeline announced … which will lead to shortages that impact consumers and the broader economy.”

Mr. Foxx and Ms. Raitt defended both the timetable for phasing out or retrofitting existing tankers and the requirement for enhanced braking.

Ms. Raitt said railroads and tank car manufacturers needed time to make improvements while continuing to meet the demand for oil shipment. “The schedule we set seeks to strike a balance,” she said.

Electronic braking stops all rail cars simultaneously, unlike older brake systems that stop cars sequentially from the front to the rear. The simultaneous stopping would reduce the likelihood of accordion-like pileups that cause tankers to rupture, explode and burn, Mr. Foxx said.

The regulations come in the wake of a 4,000 percent increase in shipments of oil by rail since 2008, fueled by the boom in oil being drawn from the Bakken Shale formation in North Dakota and Montana. Trains of 100 or more tankers pass through Downtown Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania daily on their way to East Coast refineries.

Mr. Foxx said 99.9 percent of oil shipments arrive at their destinations safely but several explosive accidents “show that 99.9 percent is not enough. We have to strive for perfection.”

In July 2013, a runaway oil train exploded in Canada, killing 47 people in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Recently, oil trains have derailed and exploded in Mount Carbon, W.Va., southeast of Charleston, and in Lynchburg, Va.

Ms. Raitt said she witnessed the devastation in Lac-Megantic. “I truly believe we have to act to honor those who died and those who were injured,” she said.

The new design standard for tank cars requires a thicker outer shell to reduce punctures; full-height shields on both ends to absorb the force of collisions; thermal shielding to prevent fire on one tanker from cooking off neighboring cars; and stronger top fittings and bottom valves to prevent ruptures and other unintended discharges.

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., called the rules “a first step,” saying “there is much more that needs to be done to ensure communities within reach of these rails are protected. Congress also needs to invest in rail safety and make sure our first responders have the resources and training they need while adding inspectors to our nation’s railways.”

Mr. Casey is one of several senators co-sponsoring legislation to speed the phasing out of older tankers, partly by offering tax credits to companies that upgrade their tank fleets to the new DOT standards. It also would impose a $175-per-car shipment fee on the oldest tankers, to be used to fund training for emergency responders, pay cleanup costs from accidents and reroute rail lines away from urban centers.

Jon Schmitz:, 412-263-1868.

First Published May 1, 2015 11:49 AM

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