New rules for ‘oil trains’ fall short of recommendations

A UTLX tank car passes westbound through Rochelle Railroad Park in Rochelle, Illinois on May 29, 2005. (Photo: Sean Lamb via Wikimedia Commons)

The Department of Transportation announced today a long-awaited set of new regulations for trains carrying petroleum crude oil, ethanol, and other flammable liquids in the United States.

But the rules, the first of which go into effect this October, fall short – significantly short, in some cases – of calls for greater safety measures by environmental and watchdog groups, as well as other agencies within the government. They also, in some cases, fail to address design flaws in train components linked to spills and leaks in major accidents as well as hundreds of minor incidents reviewed by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and WGBH-News.

The new rules are focused largely on the use of non-pressurized steel tank cars, known in the industry as DOT-111s, to carry flammable liquids, notably petroleum crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota, where an oil boom is underway, as well as the flammable fuel ethanol. Much of the Bakken Shale oil is being carried by rail to refineries in the Mid-Atlantic, Gulf, and West Coast, but crude also has been shipped through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine; and long trains carrying ethanol regularly pass through Worcester, Mass. and Rhode Island as well.

Though they’ve been used to carry such flammable liquids for decades, the DOT-111s have also been criticized for almost as long by government agencies and other experts as being weak and prone to puncturing or otherwise failing to contain their contents in a derailment.

In July, 2013, a train made up of DOT-111 tank cars full of petroleum crude oil derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, exploding in a catastrophic fire that killed 47 and burned down part of the town.

In the wake of that disaster, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called for more stringent safety requirements for the tank cars, and the US Department of Transportation issued limited emergency measures, including certain restrictions on speed. In July 2014, the DOT’s Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration announced the beginning of a rule-making process to put in place new safety measures for tank cars carrying petroleum crude and other flammable liquids.

But the process for new regulations has been slower than many would like, and the agency has recently come under fire for what some lawmakers have called inexcusable delay.

Since the Lac-Mégantic disaster, trains carrying petroleum crude oil have derailed in at least nine significant incidents, five of which involved trains catching fire. Just this February, a train carrying petroleum crude through West Virginia derailed and ignited in a massive explosion that caused the evacuation of 300 people and destroyed 19 tank cars in a 30-hour fire so intense that responders ultimately opted to let it burn itself out.

The long-awaited rules, unveiled today in a nearly 400-page document, are aimed at preventing such disasters by requiring that new tank cars be manufactured to safer standards and that the present fleet be “retrofitted” to safer standards as well.

The new regulations mostly mirror similar measures being adopted in Canada, through which crude-bearing trains traverse to and from the US.

In a news release, Secretary Foxx said that the “stronger safer, more robust tank car will protect communities on both sides of our shared border.”

The new rules call for thicker tank-car shells, to better withstand impact; a “thermal protection” system to protect the cars from heat in a fire; and improvements to other components meant to prevent flammable liquids from escaping.

New cars used in the mass-transport of highly flammable liquids will be required to use more robust braking systems, obey new speed limits, and meet stronger requirements for route analysis and sharing route information with state and local officials.

But the regulations fall short of some recommendations – many decades old –and fail to address long-known problems in others:

  • The new regulations, for example, allow “retrofits” to existing tank cars to be phased in over five years, allowing tank cars not meeting new standards to continue carrying flammable liquids during that time – despite calls from critics to remove them from such service immediately, and despite reports dating back at least to the early 1990s suggesting that the cars are “inadequate,” as a 1991 report put it, for safely carrying flammable liquids at all.
  • The changes don’t address several components with a history of failing in ways that can contribute to or cause fires. Loose “manway” bolts and prematurely opened “bottom outlet valves,” for example, appear in hundreds of records of minor releases of crude oil and other flammable liquids reviewed by NECIR, as well as in investigations of major accidents by the National Transportation Safety Board, which has in the past suggested plated manway covers and eliminating the bottom outlet valve. The DOT rule leaves the hinged-and-bolted manways and bottom outlet valves in place.
  • While new tank cars will be required to have shells of 9/16-inch thickness, existing cars will not be required to meet that standard and will be allowed to remain in service with shells of 7/16-inch thickness, as they are now. The NTSB has long advocated a thicker shell to resist puncture; and PHMSA’s own analysis indicated that the thicker shells provide nearly 70 percent more resistance to puncture.
  • The rule provides a new definition for “Highly Hazardous Flammable Trains,” (HHFTs), commonly referred to as “unit trains,” as being composed of 70 or more cars carrying flammable liquids. PHMSA had considered applying this classification to trains of 20 cars or more, and some groups had called for rules to apply to any train carrying flammable liquids in a non-pressurized tank car.
  • Those trains will now be subject to new speed limits of 50 mph in all areas and 40 mph in “high-threat urban areas” – a distinction profoundly narrower than “high density” or, as some advocates lobbied, “high-threat” areas. What’s more, several of the recent derailments occurred at speeds of significantly less than even the lower speed limit: the recent derailment in West Virginia occurred at 33 mph, according to officials.

Environmental groups lobbying for stricter rules were quick to denounce today’s announcement.

A press release issued by a coalition of groups including EarthJustice, the Sierra Club, and the National Resources Defense Council said the rules “leave communities at risk of catastrophe” and called for an immediate ban on the use of cars not meeting higher standards – all of them, at this point – to transport flammable liquids.

The NTSB, which has no direct regulatory authority itself, issues a statement of noticeably measured support: “The new rule is a significant step” toward improving safety, the agency said. “We will be analyzing the rule to see how it aligns with our outstanding safety recommendations.”