OLYMPIA, Wash. – State regulators took an important step in updating rail safety rules to address the increase in crude oil being transported by train across the state. The Utilities and Transportation Commission adopted new rules to:
• Set minimum safety requirements and conduct inspections of private crossings located on oil train routes; • Authorize first-class cities, which are exempt, to opt into the UTC crossing inspection program; and • Require railroads that haul crude oil to provide financial verification that they have the means to address a reasonable worst case spill of oil.
In 2015, Gov. Inslee proposed legislation and ultimately signed into law ESHB 1449 that funds additional federally certified rail inspectors; increases regulatory fees for railroads that haul crude oil; and allows state inspectors to enter private shippers’ property without a federal escort. The new rules are the result of that legislation. “Today the UTC takes steps towards ensuring our railways are as safe as possible, but there is still work to do to safeguard the people and environment of Washington,” said Inslee. “The improvements made today to our state’s rail safety program show that we are serious about rail safety and will take what action we can on a state level to address the dangers posed by oil trains.” Congress last year delayed requirements that railroads install anti-collision safety technology, known as “positive train control,” and allowed the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to extend timelines for phasing out older oil tank cars that carry the more volatile crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to west coast refineries. The Federal Railroad Administration has primary jurisdiction over the transportation of oil-by-rail. The UTC supports the FRA’s efforts by performing rail inspections and issuing notices and violations for non-compliance with federal railroad safety regulations on behalf of the FRA. The UTC also maintains jurisdiction over rail crossing safety. A 2015 study conducted by the Dept. of Ecology and the UTC delivered recommendations to Gov. Inslee and the Legislature to address risks to public health and safety associated with oil transportation. The commission’s rail safety recommendations were incorporated into Governor Inslee’s legislation (ESHB 1449). The commission crafted the new rules with the help of industry and environmental stakeholders along with public feedback. The new rules are effective March 11. The UTC regulates railroad safety, including approving new grade crossings and closing or altering existing rail crossings, investigating train accidents, inspecting railroad crossings, approving safety projects and managing rail safety education through Operation Lifesaver.
President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline Friday could come with a heavy side of tank cars. Canadian energy companies need about a dozen crude-laden trains each day to replace the volume of oil that could have been transported through KXL.
Now that TransCanada Corp.’s Alberta-to-Gulf-Coast pipeline has been denied, however, it’s clear that the contest between KXL and railroads in Canada’s western oil patch wasn’t a zero-sum game.
Rail shippers could see a modest boost from the pipeline’s defeat, but analysts say Canada’s crude-by-rail business must first overcome unfavorable price spreads, potentially burdensome new regulations and below-$50-per-barrel oil.
Montana’s oversight of railroad safety falls short at a time when volatile crude oil train traffic from the Bakken region, already high, is only expected to increase, a new audit found.
Montana has no active rail safety plan and employs only two inspectors to cover the vast state, the Montana Legislative Audit Division report released Wednesday said. In addition, there is a lack of statewide emergency planning and hazardous-material response capability should an oil spill occur, the report found.
That’s a potentially precarious situation with a new crude oil transfer station in North Dakota coming online that should boost oil traffic crossing Montana from about 10 trains a week to up to 15 cars per week. One out of every five Montanans lives in an evacuation zone for an oil-train derailment, which is within a half-mile of a rail line, the report said.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D. – Ohio) on Wednesday called for doing more to better protect Ohio communities by removing the older railcars transporting hazardous materials.
“We’ve seen too many derailments of trains with unsafe cars, often carrying crude oil and other hazardous material. It’s time to put a stop to these dangerous and costly spills,” Brown said in a teleconference.
“That’s why I introduced legislation that would help reduce risks to communities near railroad tracks by phasing out older tank cars, providing a tax credit to help companies upgrade to newer, safer cars and help communities better prepare for accidents,” he said.
During the past two months, more than a dozen oil and rail industry groups jockeyed for attention as Obama administration officials put the finishing touches on a major crude-by-rail safety rule.
But as firms such as Exxon Mobil Corp., Hess Corp. and CSX Corp. led one last lobbying blitz, several environmentalist and labor organizations paid their first visits to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) as it weighed the final regulations.
John Risch, national legislative director for the SMART union’s transportation division, said his group’s March 30 meeting at OIRA stemmed from a desire to do “something different” about the oil safety rule, which touches on everything from train speed to tank car design. OIRA is a small but influential part of the Office of Management and Budget that analyzes the costs and benefits of a given rule before it goes public.
“I saw actually a press clip that the railroads had met with [OIRA] and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m missing a step here,’ so I requested to meet with them,” Risch said, noting that SMART-TD had filed comments on an earlier draft of the crude-by-rail rule in addition to working with the Federal Railroad Administration.
Earlier in the month, representatives from the environmental group Earthjustice sat down with OIRA to call for a ban on the oldest, least crash-worthy type DOT-111 tank cars still used to haul thousands of barrels of crude across the country each day. Other organizations present at the March 13 meeting included ForestEthics, Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, all of which have voiced concerns about a string of recent oil train derailments and explosions.
Earthjustice again met with OIRA on April 15, just two weeks before the release of the final rule.
“We’re starting to see more and more people get engaged on this rule because these tank cars are rolling through towns and communities across the country,” said Jessica Ennis, a senior legislative representative with Earthjustice who lobbies on a range of topics important to the organization. “Every time there’s another explosion, more people are realizing that carrying crude oil by rail is actually very dangerous.”
The new Department of Transportation rule aims to make that process less dangerous by toughening new tank car standards and requiring shippers to update older cars on a 10-year time frame. The rule also caps oil and ethanol trains’ speed limits at 40 mph through most big cities and 50 mph elsewhere.
Environmentalist groups have been largely critical of the final rule, noting that it applies only to trains with 20 or more tank cars and follows a too-leisurely phaseout schedule.
Risch of SMART-TD is more satisfied with the rule.
At the meeting he called for in March, Risch pushed transportation regulators to make railroads add electronically controlled pneumatic brakes — a technology the North Dakota native hailed as “the greatest safety enhancement I witnessed in my 30-year career as a locomotive engineer.”
The final rule would require trains carrying 70 or more cars of the most flammable kinds of crude to use ECP brakes by 2021 or face a 30 mph speed limit, with other “high-hazard flammable unit trains” following suit by 2023.
The rail, oil and tank car industries had fought an ECP braking mandate as expensive and unnecessary, with Ed Hamberger, head of the Association of American Railroads, calling their requirement a “rash rush to judgment” on the part of DOT.
Risch acknowledged that the shift to ECP technology would come at a cost but called DOT’s 2021 initial deadline a “reasonable approach.”
“It’s not radical like it’s being portrayed,” he said.
Green groups led by Earthjustice had hoped for faster and broader application of ECP brakes, which government analyses said would reduce the severity of oil train accidents by up to 36 percent compared to regular braking systems.
Environmentalists had also sought to draw attention to the towns affected by the DOT rulemaking, with Ennis of Earthjustice helping schedule a conference call between Obama administration officials and council members from several cities.
“I think these meetings are extremely important, especially with local elected officials — they’re closest to where these accidents can happen across the country,” Ennis noted. “They have a unique, on-the-ground perspective on this that’s very important for the DOT to hear.”
Shannon Williamson, a City Council member in Sandpoint, Idaho, participated in the April 15 conference call with OIRA and called the conversation an “absolutely critical opportunity.”
Sandpoint is a hub for westbound crude from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale play, where the bulk of the nation’s oil-by-rail shipments originate. Oil train traffic rose from about 15 oil trains per week to 23 in the span of a year, said Williamson, who is also executive director of the environmental nonprofit Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper.
She added that her town is about the same size as Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where a 72-car train hauling Bakken crude derailed and exploded in July 2013, killing 47 people.
That disaster set into motion the rulemaking unveiled Friday, which was a joint effort between U.S. and Canadian regulators.
“The oil industry had lobbyists in the administrative offices practically every single day during this whole rulemaking,” Williamson said. “The people who are going to be impacted by oil-by-rail transport are not being adequately represented — or they weren’t.”
This story was written by Blake Sobczak and originally appeared on EnergyWire and was reposted with permission from Sobczak.
OMAHA – BNSF Railway Co. has started taking additional safety measures for crude oil shipments because of four recent high-profile derailments in the U.S. and Canada, the railroad said Monday.
Under the changes, BNSF is slowing down crude oil trains to 35 mph in cities with more than 100,000 people and increasing track inspections near waterways. The Fort Worth, Texas, based railroad also is stepping up efforts to find and repair defective wheels before they can cause derailments.
WASHINGTON – Last week, U.S. Sen. Al Franken asked the Federal Railroad Administration to consider rerouting trains carrying volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota so they do not pass through Minnesota’s biggest cities.
For Franken, the possibility of rerouting is an integral part of a comprehensive response to a recent rash of fiery oil train derailments that also includes stabilizing Bakken crude before it is loaded into stronger tanker cars.
The Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO issued the following statement on the train accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that happened one year this week:
This week marks the one year anniversary of a tragic rail accident – a runaway train carrying 72 cars of crude ran into Lac-Megantic, Quebec killing 47 people and demolishing an entire town. While millions of carloads and containers traverse the country safely each year, too many accidents have occurred lately both in the freight and passenger sector. While the causes of these accidents vary and many investigations are ongoing, what is known is that more must be done to ensure that rail transportation is as safe and secure as possible for employees and the public.
For starters, too many rail workers, especially those responsible for operating trains and maintaining safety-sensitive equipment, are forced to report to work tired and fatigued. TTD has long called for federal rules to be changed to ensure that employees are given proper notice of when they will need to report to work and predictable schedules so that adequate rest can be secured.
Congress must also step in to stop rail companies from only “counting” certain hours that signal employees work as a way to get around federal rules limiting on-duty time. Let’s just say that there are some rail executives using creative calculating when it comes to adding up “covered work.” The problem is that this isn’t a game, and it is jeopardizing safety.
Congress must also adopt a mandated minimum crew size for freight train operations. Last year’s accident in Lac-Megantic, caused by a train that was operated by a single crew member, is a tragic reminder of the dangers posed by risky one-person rail operations. A freight train is massive – up to 19,000 tons and a mile and a half long – that simply should not be operated by one individual, especially given the myriad operating rules and regulations that must be followed. And while two-person crews are the norm on U.S. freight lines, crew size is often an issue determined by collective bargaining rather than federal mandate. Safety should not be bartered at the negotiating table. And by the way, the public agrees with us on this, with a series of polls showing that up to 9 out of 10 Americans believe #2crewtrains should be a national standard.
Fortunately, some lawmakers are taking steps to address rail safety. Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Jim Himes (D-CT), Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) introduced legislation (H.R. 4576) earlier this year that mandates predictable and defined work and rest schedules and Congressman Michaud (D-ME) introduced a bill (H.R. 3040) requiring a minimum crew size for freight trains. We also applaud the Department of Transportation and its Federal Railroad Administration for moving on a new proposed rule on two-person train crew requirements. Strong federal action is needed because we know from experience that the rail lobby will dismiss and downplay these dangerous operating practices.
In addition, first responders require the necessary tools and training to effectively respond to rail accidents, particularly those involving hazardous materials. Domestic oil production has boomed and the amount of crude oil being shipped by rail has increased 70-fold in the last decade. Despite that fact, many firefighters receive an inadequate level of training that does little more than teach them to call for help in the case of a hazardous materials incident. Congress must direct adequate resources to states and localities for first responder training but also ensure that the level of training is sufficient.
This week’s anniversary of the tragedy in Lac-Megantic is a glaring reminder that it’s not just the workers on these trains that are endangered by unsafe rail industry practices. The neighborhoods and cities through which these trains travel should care just as much. Congress and the Administration must take strong, immediate action to close gaps in rail safety that expose too many to unnecessary risks.