The problems with the DOT-111 tank railcars that exploded and killed 47 and destroyed the downtown core of the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic have been known since 1991, according to Congressman Peter DeFazio, yet the federal government still hasn’t pushed to fix them.
While Lac-Mégantic was the most lethal derailment of trains carrying explosive Bakken crude, trains have also exploded in West Virginia, Alabama and North Dakota, and reports say Oregon has at least six oil trains a day along the Columbia River and through Central Oregon. The Pacific Northwest has seen a dramatic increase in oil train traffic — up 250 percent in 2013 according to Oregon Department of Transportation records — thanks to the development of hydraulic fracturing and the oil boom in the Bakken area of North Dakota.
DeFazio held a press conference March 12 at the Springfield location of Greenbrier Rail Services (GBS) to announce not only an increased push by federal politicians to increase oil car standards, but that GBS has designed a new, safer rail car and would retrofit old cars to new standards in Springfield and create 100 new jobs.
Mayors Kitty Piercy and Christine Lundberg also spoke at the event, which was attended by Timothy P. Butters, acting administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation as well as other stakeholders in railroads, federal rail and hazmat agencies, emergency responders and manufacturers. The press conference was followed by a closed roundtable with the stakeholders.
Greg Saxton, GBS’s chief engineer, calls the new car the “tank car of the future” except, he says, it is already here — it just needs the new federal rules to be passed so companies such as BNSF Railroad will order it. Saxton says a better-designed structure of the railcars could have “changed the outcome” at Lac-Mégantic.
DeFazio pointed out that first responders often don’t know what is in the train when they arrive at the scene of an accident. He tells EW, “First responders need instant access to everything that’s on a train.” He says the roundtable had extensive discussion among the stakeholders about ensuring that shippers provide the correct paperwork to the railroads, the manifest is correct and should be available “instantaneously.”
“My solution is that there be a designated office in the state — we do have an emergency office 24/7” where the railroad would provide information for first responders. DeFazio also says there is a 1-800 number, but many first responders don’t know about it.
The congressman says that, according to Butters, the paperwork on the MSDS (Materials Safety Data Sheet) at the West Virginia explosion was three years old and that there needs to be more specific information about the volatility of the crude. While Texas, which also has volatile crude, degasifies it, that procedure is not done in areas like Pennsylvania or Bakken.
DeFazio says it’s important people know that railroads don’t own their railcars and are “common carriers” required to carry what they are given. He says, “Congress needs to give clear authority to railroads to charge a differential tariff on hazardous materials if they so wish.”
A railroad could charge different rates for a volatile crude versus one less prone to blowing up, and that would create an incentive to degasify the crude.
He also points out that there are things shipped by rail “with potential to cause way more damage than oil,” such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia.
DeFazio says he will push for the differential tariff and reauthorizing the hazardous materials bill probably as part of the surface transportation bill.
The oil and chemical companies will oppose this, he says, but “I hope railroads will support it — some seem a little afraid of their customers,” he says.