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Departing NTSB chief says rail oil shipments pose a danger

WASHINGTON – Outgoing National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman Monday defended the aviation safety regulations stemming from the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, but saved some of her toughest departing words for a rail industry that’s increasingly hauling outdated tanker cars filled with oil through cities like Buffalo.

In a question-and-answer session that followed her farewell address at the National Press Club, Hersman warned that communities are not ready for the calamity that could ensue if a train carrying oil or ethanol were to derail and explode.

“Our communities aren’t prepared to respond to this,” she said. “This can be a worst case scenario event, and we don’t have the provisions in place either on the industry side or for the first responders.”

Hersman will leave the Safety Board this week after a decade of service. She became the board’s chairman only months after the Flight 3407 crash, which claimed 50 lives, and became a strong ally of the Families of Continental Flight 3407 as the NTSB completed its investigation of the crash, which her agency blamed on pilot error.

Now, though, Hersman seems most worried about the kind of accident that happened in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last July 6, when a train carrying crude oil derailed. Several tanker cars exploded, 47 people died, and half of the town’s downtown area was destroyed.

Hersman said that was the worst of several catastrophic accidents resulting from the shipment of oil by rail, which has become much more prevalent since the North Dakota oil boom began a few years ago.

“These shipments have increased by over 440 percent in the intervening years, but our regulations have not changed,” she said. “So now where you might have had a train in the past that had one tanker of ethanol or one tanker of crude oil, you now have an entire train of 100 cars carrying millions of gallons of this hazardous liquid coming through many communities.”

Two or three such trains roll through Buffalo and Western New York every day, and already the community has suffered a near-miss: a derailment of a trail carrying crude oil through Cheektowaga last Dec. 10.

Hersman said she’s particularly concerned about the use of outdated DOT-111 tanker cars, which are neither pressurized nor armored, for the shipment of oil and ethanol.

“Carrying corn oil is fine. Carrying crude oil is not,” she said. “So let’s be very clear that DOT-111s were not designed to carry hazardous liquids. At this point the industry and others agree. They’re working voluntarily to improve the tank car designs. But we think more needs to be done.”

To that end, Hersman said the NTSB this week will hold a two-day forum on the issue, which also has drawn the attention of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

In response to questions, Hersman shed no new light on the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, but she did rush to defend the aviation safety rules stemming from the Flight 3407 crash – which, according to the aviation industry, are prompting a pilot shortage.

“I’ll leave the economics up to others but there was a very good reason why rules were passed and why regulations have changed,” she said. “We had accidents, we learned lessons from them, we made recommendations. Many of those recommendations have been implemented. That is a good thing. That raises the level of safety for all of us.”

As for the supposed pilot shortage, she said: “If there are issues that need to be addressed, I am absolutely confident that in a society like ours, with the means that we have as the world’s largest economy, that we can figure them out. Safety has to come first.”

Safety will continue to come first for Hersman, who has been named president and CEO of the National Safety Council in suburban Chicago.

One of the key members of the Flight 3407 families group, Karen Eckert, attended Hersman’s farewell speech. Eckert, who lost her sister, Sept. 11 activist Beverly Eckert, in the crash, praised Hersman for focusing on the right issues during the crash investigation and for being so supportive to those who lost loved ones in the accident.

“She’s very special to our group,” Eckert said. “She always showed a lot of empathy.”