WASHINGTON – The federal government wants to give the railroad industry two years to phase out or fix the outdated and explosion-prone rail tank cars that carry volatile crude oil through Western New York as many as 35 times a week, and that’s great news to safety officials such as Earl Loder.
“That will be a big move forward,” Loder, emergency manager for the Town of Cheektowaga, said after the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the proposed new tank car rules on Wednesday.
Loder saw the danger such “oil trains” pose last December, when a CSX train derailed in Cheektowaga. None of the cars that derailed were ruptured in the accident, but if they had been, the result would have been disastrous, he said.
“You would have had the same scenario they had in Quebec,” where an oil train derailed and exploded a year ago, claiming 42 lives and destroying the downtown of the town of Lac-Megantic.
Loder was part of a chorus of support for the U.S. Department of Transportation proposal, which drew a muted response from the rail industry and only mild criticism from environmentalists who said tough new rules should be implemented more quickly.
Under the proposal, outdated DOT-111 tank cars would be barred from shipping most crude oil from North Dakota’s oil-rich Bakken Shale within two years unless they are retrofitted to new safety standards.
“The DOT did just what we wanted today,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who has been pressing for months for federal action on the issue.
“This proposed rule is a common-sense approach that puts into place many of the reforms that communities across New York have demanded,” said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has also lobbied for strong new rules on oil trains.
The proposed regulations come after a string of accidents involving the DOT-111 rail cars, which are not armored or pressurized and therefore not designed to be carrying flammable liquids.
New York State reported last week that upwards of 44 such “oil trains” cross the state every week. That includes between 20 and 35 CSX Transportation oil trains that enter the state in Chautauqua County before moving north through Buffalo and several of its suburbs and then eastward toward the Port of Albany.
The federal proposal would bar the use of the older DOT-111 tank cars for shipping oil a year sooner than a similar rule proposed in Canada.
Under the U.S. rule, within two years of the rule’s approval, “Group 1 flammable liquids” – such as Bakken crude – could not be shipped in older tank cars unless the cars are retrofitted to have a thicker casing and rollover protection, among other safeguards.
“While we have made unprecedented progress through voluntary agreements and emergency orders, today’s proposal represents our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who announced the new rules.
The proposed rule also requires oil trains to install state-of-the-art braking systems. In addition, the rule seeks public comment on the possibility of limiting the speed of oil trains to 40 mph either in all areas, in areas with a population of more than 100,000 or in “high-threat urban areas.”
Along with announcing the new rule, DOT released the findings of a study of Bakken crude that served as another argument for the tougher train safety standards.
“The data show that crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota tends to be more volatile and flammable than other crude oils,” DOT said.
Release of the proposed rule marks the opening of a 60-day public comment period. DOT said it does not plan to extend that comment period, as often happens, because it wants to enact the new rules as soon as possible.
Rail industry officials said they needed to review the proposal more closely before offering detailed comments.
“CSX places the highest priority on safety, and appreciates Secretary Foxx’s continued focus on safe and reliable transportation as reflected by today’s DOT announcement of proposed rulemakings for crude oil and ethanol,” CSX Transportation, which runs oil trains through Western New York, said in a statement. “CSX is reviewing the comprehensive package.”
Meanwhile, a voice of dissent arose from Riverkeeper, a New York environmental group.
“The U.S. Department of Transportation’s proposed rulemaking is a start in the direction of taking long-needed action to make communities across New York State and the country more protected from the extreme risks of crude oil transport,” Riverkeeper said in a statement. “But DOT has once again failed to take immediate steps to reduce those risks.”