Oil train safety regulations falling behind industry

The OlympianJanuary 10, 2014 

Fossil fuels have ignited a boom for the American railroad industry, moving coal and crude oil from the Northern Plains across the country. Up to now, West Coast citizens have focused mainly on the environmental impacts of coal trains to two export terminals proposed for Longview and Bellingham.

But the explosive dangers of oil trains may be a more immediate concern.

Last week, another oil train derailed and exploded near Casselton, N.D., prompting the evacuation of half of the town’s population that might have been exposed to toxic fumes. The train was carrying the lighter and more flammable crude oil from the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and Montana.

In November, an oil train exploded in Alabama, creating a giant fireball that scorched surrounding rural lands. In July, an oil train derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.

The Alabama and North Dakota trains adhered to existing federal safety regulations, making it obvious that new safety rules are needed.

It’s shameful the Obama administration has not moved more quickly because it has known for years that the industry had moved out ahead of regulators. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration began work on new safety rules a full year prior to the deadly Quebec derailment, but successful lobbying by the rail industry has prevented their implementation.

Oil tanker cars in use today were designed for the heavy crude oil extracted primarily in Texas. But the Bakken oil has a lower flash point, meaning the vapors can ignite at a lower temperature. That requires thicker tank shells, puncture-resistant shields and stronger valve fittings to prevent spills that could easily explode.

The railway industry has agreed to retrofit its older cars and build new ones to higher standards, but they want a 10-year timeline to complete the expensive process. That’s too long, considering the skyrocketing growth in oil shipments.

The Associated Press reports the amount of oil shipped by rail has increased from 10,000 tanker cars in 2009 to more than 400,000 in 2013.

According to the Sightline Institute, there are 11 refineries and port terminals “in Oregon and Washington planning, building or already operating oil-by-rail shipments.” If they were all at capacity, says Sightline, it “would put an estimated 20 mile-long oil trains per day on the Northwest’s railway system.”

Most of those trains would pass through Spokane and other parts of Eastern Washington, but some would roll up and down the coast. There are three proposals for Grays Harbor.

Environmental concerns aside, it is safer to move oil through pipelines. And there has to be some negative environmental impact from an additional 390,000 oil tanker cars over five years. But that’s a larger debate.

For now, the federal government should mandate updated safety regulations for oil tanker cars as quickly as possible.

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