May 6 3:13 PM

New ‘bomb train’ rules welcomed with a bang

Smoke and fire rise from an oil train that derailed Wednesday in Heimdal, N.D. Officials say ten tanker cars caught fire prompting the evacuation of the town where about three dozen people live.
Curt Benson / AP

On Friday, the Department of Transportation quietly rolled out new rules for shipping volatile crude oil across United States rail lines, but Wednesday, yet another reminder of the urgent importance of new regulation hit a central North Dakota town with a bang.

The small town of Heimdal, 80 miles southeast of Minot, was evacuated after a train carrying crude oil derailed at about 7:30 a.m. local time, and ten cars burst into flames, according to the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services. The fire is reportedly so intense, no one can get within an eighth of a mile of the accident.

The train, operated by BNSF, was made up of 107 oil cars, and two buffer cars filled with sand between the crude and the locomotives. The North Dakota NBC TV affiliate reported a rail company spokeswoman said the type of tanker cars in the derailment are unjacketed CPC-1232s.

And, in light of the new DOT rules, that bit of seemingly technical information is more than just academic.

With the rise in oil and gas production in North America in recent years, the amount of volatile hydrocarbons shipped over the continent’s rail lines has increased dramatically. According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by train jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 in 2014.

And with the jump in rail traffic so too has come an escalation in the number of high-profile disasters involving what some critics have dubbed “bomb trains.”

Since a derailment and crude explosion flattened the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic and killed 47 in July 2013, there have been oil-rail accidents in Alabama, Colorado, IllinoisNorth Dakota, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, to name but a sample. None of those were as deadly as the Quebec disaster, but many of the resulting fires required evacuations, days (if not weeks) of fire and toxic substances management, and some accidents dumped tens of thousands of gallons of crude into nearby streams and rivers.

Today’s accident in Heimdal is the fifth major oil train derailment and fire this year, according to safety advocates.

Part of the problem is that the type of oil now being transported, much of it from the Bakken reserve in North Dakota and Montana, is more volatile than some of the crude previously shipped by rail. And part of the problem is the tankers in which it is shipped.

The most common tank car, making up more than two-thirds of the U.S. tanker fleet, is the DOT-111. These decades-old cars were involved in many of the derailments and explosions listed above, including the Lac-Mégantic disaster (DOT-111-type tank cars are even more common in Canada than in the U.S.).

In 2011, new industry specifications for transport of oil and ethanol resulted in the CPC-1232, a theoretically stronger, safer car. There are an estimated 60,000 CPC-1232s in operation in North America.

But the 1232s have been involved in plenty of large-scale crude explosions themselves. In addition to today’s North Dakota accident, and recent accidents in Galena, Illinois, and Mount Carbon, West Virginia, the CPC-1232 cars were most notably involved in the 2014 derailment and fireball in Lynchburg, Virginia. Fourteen cars on that CSX train jumped the tracks; many burned for days, spilling thousands of gallons of oil into the James River.

But the 25 million Americans who are said to live close to the oil-train corridors should not expect a quick fix from the new Department of Transportation guidelines. Though troubles with the bomb trains have been part of the national conversation for years, the DOT, which had been heavily lobbied by the railway and oil industries, said much more time must pass before the most dangerous tanker cars are retired.

Under Friday’s rule, it will be at least March 2018 before DOT-111s are completely phased out. The CPC-1232s will be allowed to keep rolling through 2020. (And, mind you, the freight-rail lobby says these deadlines are too near and the rules too expensive, and have vowed to fight them each step of the way.)

In Canada, a 2017 phase out of their 111 equivalent was adopted last year, but there are no current plans to ban 1232s.

Since the Lynchburg derailment, some towns and cities have tried to at least get a sense of when and how much of this volatile cargo is passing near or through their municipalities, to both inform the local population and better budget for first responders and disaster management. This was possible because the crude shipments were part of the public record and could be sought through the Freedom of Information Act.

But under the new Transportation Department rules, that information will no longer be available. The schedules and contents of tanker trains will now be classified as proprietary trade information, and the DOT says making the information fully public could pose a security risk. The new regulations say that shipment information should be conveyed to area first responders, but this appears to me more of suggestion, with no clear guidelines on what needs to be included in any communication and no specifics on how far in advance information should be delivered.

And, with any public transparency eliminated, there is now no way to see if the rules are even being followed or enforced.

And that is a walk back from notification requirements floated only months earlier by the Obama administration.

The “industry lobbying made them flinch,” wrote Todd Paglia, executive director of environmental watchdog ForestEthics, after the new rules were released, but before today’s North Dakota accident. “The administration failed to learn the lessons of Lac Megantic or the four explosive oil train accidents we've seen so far in 2015.”

Paglia also contends that, along with the phase out of old, explosion-prone tankers being too slow, the oil trains are still allowed to travel too fast. The DOT proposes a 50-mph limit on volatile cargoes, with a 40-mph cap for “high threat” urban areas. Those strictures are still twice the “puncture velocity” of the old tank cars, wrote Paglia, noting that the derailment and explosion earlier this year in Illinois happened at only 23 mph.

“Would the new rules have prevented any of the 2015 accidents and, ultimately, will they reduce the threat of oil train catastrophes like [Lac-Mégantic]?” asked Paglia. “The answer is no.”

Even BNSF spokesman Michael Trevino could not say whether the new DOT regulations would have changed today’s outcome. “The new rules would have a safer tank than the ones involved in this incident. So the new rules are moving toward a safer set of circumstances,” Trevino said in an interview with the Grand Forks Herald.

But that set of circumstances fails to limit the weight and length of oil trains, and does not mandate more headroom or empty space in each tank, changes industry critics say could also lower the risk of catastrophic accidents. In addition, it has been proposed that petroleum companies separate out the most volatile parts of the crude before loading it into rail cars, but that, too, appears to be a step the DOT was not willing to take.

Sarah Feinberg, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, and a focal point in the current debate over oil-train safety, said in a statement “Today's incident is yet another reminder of why we issued a significant, comprehensive rule aimed at improving the safe transport of high hazard flammable liquids.” Feinberg’s statement also failed to note whether the new regulation would have changed Wednesday’s unfortunate results.

The FRA has sent a 10-person investigation team to Heimdal.

“The FRA will continue to look at all options available to us to improve safety and mitigate risks,” said Feinberg. Perhaps they will in North Dakota ... in a couple of days or so ... after the fire dies down and investigators can get closer to the accident.

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