Feds: Defective valves led to crude oil leaks on train cars in Washington state

Roughly 6,000 tank cars could have defective valves that leaked crude oil and other hazardous materials in several incidents across the country in recent months, including at least one in Washington state, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

In a directive Friday, March 13, the FRA gave all tank car owners notice they have 60 days to replace the defective 3-inch ball valves, which were not approved for use in tank cars. The train cars can be used in the interim, according to the FRA.

All hazardous materials tank cars that have the defective components will need them replaced, along with two other ball valves that work but never received approval from the Association of American Railroads. Owners have 90 days to replace the other two types of valves.

The 1-, 2- and 3-inch valves were all manufactured and sold by McKenzie Valve and Machining, a company in Tennessee. McKenzie declined to comment for this story.

Though the FRA has identified only “a small number of relatively minor hazardous materials leaks” that can be attributed to the McKenzie valves, the administration believes that the number of leaks could be much higher, according to the directive.

Sarah Feinberg, the FRA’s acting chief, said Friday that removal of the valves will help reduce the number of non-derailment releases of hazardous materials.

“Any type of hazardous materials release, no matter how small, is completely unacceptable,” she said in a statement.

The FRA also announced Friday that it was launching a full audit of the approval process for tank car components to determine why the unapproved valves were installed.

Under federal regulations, tank car valve designs must be approved by the Association of American Railroads Tank Car Committee.

FRA said it would begin working immediately with the association, which is the rail industry’s principal trade group in the nation’s capital.

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the railroad association, said Friday that it supported the order. Railroads don’t own most of the tank cars used to transport oil.

“The findings of the FRA investigation demonstrate how this is a complex issue, and that the shipment of oil is a shared responsibility involving railroads, shippers and tank car owners and manufacturers,” Greenberg said in a statement.

FRA’s order came about a month after crews discovered tank cars leaking from their top fittings on a handful of trains hauling different types of crude oil through Washington state.

In mid-January, a train loaded with Bakken crude needed to have more than a dozen leaking cars removed at three separate stops as it traveled through Idaho and crossed Washington state.

The train was headed from North Dakota’s Bakken region to the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes.

In a report to the U.S. Department of Transportation, BNSF said a total of 26 gallons of oil from 14 leaking cars was found only on the tops and sides of tank cars, and no oil was found on the ground.

Crews had first noticed oil on the side of a tank car while the train was in northern Idaho, and after checking the rest of the train, removed that car, which had leaked about two gallons, according to BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace.

After the train had crossed through the state, following the Columbia River to Vancouver, Wash., crews found that crude oil had leaked onto the top of seven more cars, which were removed from the train on Jan. 12. BNSF reported the incident to the state Department of Ecology on Jan. 23.

BNSF also reported that about 10 gallons total had leaked from six more cars removed in Auburn on Jan. 13.

Tesoro Refining found two more leaking cars once the train made it to the refinery in Anacortes, which means 16 of 100 cars on the train were found to have leaks, according to the directive.

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission and the FRA examined the cars that were pulled from the train in Vancouver, which led to the discovery that closure plugs on the valves caused damage to the valve’s seal, and when tightened, would press down on and damage the ball.

The cars involved were higher-standard cars built after 2011 that some oil companies have started using after several fiery derailments caused concerns about older DOT-111 rail cars, which have been found more likely to puncture or burst.

The newer CPC-1232-standard cars have thicker shells, head shields and improved fittings on top of the car. However, the newer standard cars have performed no better in four recent oil train derailments in West Virginia, Illinois and Ontario, Canada.

The White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing a new tank car standard proposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation. It is scheduled for publication on May 12.

The FRA estimates that roughly 6,000 tank cars are equipped with the unapproved 3-inch valves.

“Since 2009, McKenzie sold about 11,200 of the 3-inch valves to a variety of tank car owners and tank car facilities,” the FRA directive states. “In addition, McKenzie indicates that it has sold more than 37,000 1 inch and 2 inch valves to a variety of tank car owners and facilities.”

Removing and replacing the valves was not expected to significantly disrupt rail shipping.

Wallace said BNSF would work with customers and shippers to take the actions required by the FRA directive.

“Although BNSF does not own the tank cars, nothing is more important to us than safely operating through the communities that we serve,” she wrote in a statement.

Friday’s enforcement action is the second to result from an investigation launched after McClatchy reported on leaking rail cars in Washington state.

On Thursday, the agency said it had sanctioned the operator of a North Dakota loading facility for not properly closing a valve on another oil car after McClatchy reported in January that the car arrived at the BP Cherry Point refinery with 1,600 gallons missing.

That spill was discovered in early November but wasn’t reported to state officials until early December. Local emergency officials were never notified, according to a report sent by BNSF Railway to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Washington state Utilities and Transportation Commission.

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