WASHINGTON Federal regulators should use their emergency powers to make moving crude oil and ethanol by rail safer in the foreseeable future, the chairman of the National Transportation Board said Wednesday.
"They don't need a higher body count in order for the regulators to move forward," Deborah Hersman said of Transportation Department officials. She made her comments at the conclusion of a two-day forum on safety issues involving rail transportation of crude oil and ethanol.
The use of so-called unit trains carrying up to 100 tanker cars of crude oil or ethanol is a relatively new phenomenon that risks catastrophic events such as the July 2013 accident in Quebec that caused 47 deaths and the evacuation of more than 2,000 people.
The engineer on that crude oil train failed to properly secure it on an incline when it was parked overnight. The train rolled into the community of in Lac-Megantic, derailing at a speed of 64 mph.
The accident was the worst of 16 significant freight rail accidents since 2006. Nine involved crude oil and seven involved ethanol.
Hersman urged federal rail regulators to follow the lead of Transport Canada, which announced Wednesday it will phase out older DOT-111 series tanker cars in Canada over the next three years unless they're retrofitted.
In addition, Transport Canada announced that Emergency Response Assistance Plans will be required for trains that have even one tank car loaded with a flammable substance such as crude oil, gasoline, diesel, aviation fuel, or ethanol.
The Canadian agency also ordered a reduction in the maximum speed of freight trains carrying crude oil or ethanol through urban areas to 40 mph and 50 mph in other areas. That copies an emergency agreement reached earlier this year by the U.S. freight rail industry and the Federal Railroad Administration.
An estimated 434,000 tanker loads of crude oil were shipped by rail in the United States last year, compared to only 9,500 in 2008, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Much of that oil was carried from the Bakken Formation oil field in North Dakota and Montana to refineries on the East, West and Gulf coasts. Oil production in the Bakken field reached 1 million barrels a day in December and is forecast to peak at 2 million barrels a day in seven years, Skip Elliott of CSX Transportation told the NTSB.
"CSX does not seek to transport highly hazardous products, but we understand our commitment under the law," Elliott said, referring to federal common carrier regulations.
Oil trains rumble through Rockland on the River Line, the busy freight railroad owned by CSX. Each day, about 35 freight trains travel the River Line. Two of them typically are oil trains, each of them hauling some 2.4 million gallons of crude from the Bakken Formation in 80 to 100 tank cars shaped like soup cans. The most commonly used tank cars, DOT-111s, have a history of safety issues.
Oil trains gained the attention of Rockland's top public safety officials after a Dec. 6 crash of a locomotive hauling 99 empty oil tank cars into a truck in West Nyack. The train didn't derail.
About 70 percent of ethanol is transported by rail, according to Bob Dinneen of the Renewable Fuels Association.
"It has allowed us to create a virtual pipeline, allowing us to move product anywhere in the country," he said.
The NTSB forum highlighted industry disagreements that have slowed development of safety standards for new tanker cars in a growing sector of the U.S. economy.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which has jurisdiction over rail tanker car safety standards, has not yet proposed a new standard. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who oversees the agency, has told Congress no date has been set for releasing a draft of the proposed standard.
"The regulators have got to catch up," Hersman said. "They aren't moving fast enough and industry is, in many ways, leaving them behind."
Instead of acting with urgency, Hersman said, agencies are following a slow rulemaking process that could take years to implement.
The railroad industry has begun ordering a new generation of tank cars without waiting for new federal standards, but manufacturers and suppliers said they would prefer "regulatory certainty" that the new cars won't become quickly obsolete.
Likewise, fire safety groups told the NTSB they support working more closely with railroads to stockpile foam, and obtaining more detailed information about hazardous materials moving through communities by rail.
Crude oil and ethanol fires caused by derailed freight trains are left to burn out on their own because first responders can't extinguish them, fire safety officials told the agency.
"They are no-brainers," Greg Noll of the National Fire Protection Association said during the second day of a two-day forum on safety issues linked to rail transport of crude oil and ethanol. "There is very little we as first responders are going to do."
Even multiple fire departments located near the site of a railroad tanker fire don't have enough foam to extinguish such blazes, which can spread from car to car. The DOT-111 tankers that carry most crude oil moved by freight rail can't quickly vent high-pressure vapors that build up inside the cars, railroad experts said during the first day of the forum Tuesday. They said those vapors can ignite into a thermal mushroom cloud.
Many suburban and rural community fire departments don't have enough training or manpower to handle railroad tanker fires, said Rick Edinger with the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
Deadly derailments of trains carrying crude oil and ethanol also have raised questions about tanker car design, but industry groups say they haven't been able to agree on the thickness of steel in the shell of new tankers.
Rail tanker manufacturers said they're ready to increase production to meet increased demand, but want regulatory certainty about the future standard.
Industry officials said a disagreement over one-eighth-of-an-inch thickness of steel for the shell of crude oil tankers — whether to continue using 7/16th-inch shells or move to 9/16th-inch shells — led them to ask federal regulators to promulgate a rule setting the standard for new tanker cars.
Industry groups agree ethanol can continue to be transported in tankers with 7/16th-inch steel shells, but the Renewable Fuels Association opposes plans to retrofit those tankers with safety upgrades.
Retrofitting the 29,000 tank cars that are used to transport ethanol would cost $3 billion, the association spokesman said.
Karl Alexy of the Federal Railroad Authority, however, said federal inspections of damage caused by 31 tank car fires found no compelling reason for treating ethanol tank cars differently from crude oil tankers.
The Greenbrier Companies, one of four major U.S. manufacturers of tank cars, supports a standard that would use the thicker 9/16th-inch steel shell, chief engineer Gregory Saxton said.
"The uncertainty of what we are hauling — we need some extra margin of safety to be able to deal with that," Saxton said. "Engineers deal with uncertainty by adding an extra margin of safety."