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NTSB: Oil train crash risks ‘major loss of life’

FILE - In this Dec. 30, 2013 file photo, a fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D. Warning that a "major loss of life" could result from an accident involving the increasing use of trains to transport large amounts of crude oil, U.S. and Canadian accident investigators urged their governments to take a series of safety measures. The oil train derailed and exploded near Casselton, N.D., creating intense fires. The accident occurred about a mile outside the town, and no one was hurt. Rail lines run through and alongside the town. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy, File)

A fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D. on Dec. 30, 2013. The oil train derailed and exploded near Casselton, N.D., creating intense fires. The accident occurred about a mile outside the town, and no one was hurt. Rail lines run through and alongside the town. AP file photo

By
January 31, 2014 |

By Joan Lowy

WASHINGTON — Warning that a “major loss of life” could result from an accident involving the increasing use of trains to transport large amounts of crude oil, U.S. and Canadian accident investigators urged their governments on Jan. 23 to impose new safety rules.

The unusual joint recommendations by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada include better route planning for trains carrying hazardous materials to avoid populated and other sensitive areas.

They also recommended stronger efforts to ensure hazardous cargo is properly classified before shipment, and greater government oversight to ensure rail carriers that transport oil are capable of responding to “worst-case discharges of the entire quantity of product carried on a train.”

The NTSB also noted that it is still waiting for final action from government regulators on new requirements to improve the safety of tank cars used to transport oil. The safety board called for changes in the DOT-111 tank cars, which are used for a variety of flammable liquids, after a 2009 accident in Cherry Valley, Ill. The rules aren’t expected to be ready until next year.

Last month an oil train derailed and exploded near Casselton, N.D., creating intense fires. The accident occurred about a mile outside the town, and no one was hurt, but about 2,000 people were evacuated to avoid toxic smoke. Rail lines run through and alongside the town.

In July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border. Forty-seven people were incinerated and 30 buildings destroyed.

The NTSB noted that crude oil shipments by rail have increased by more than 400 percent since 2005. Some oil trains are more than 100 cars long.

“The NTSB is concerned that major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences can occur when large volumes of crude oil or other flammable liquids are transported on single train involved in an accident,” NTSB said.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx met with oil and railroad executives last week, pressing them to come up with voluntary changes in the way oil is transported to increase safety. He asked industry officials to report back to him within 30 days.

Edward Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads, reaffirmed the freight rail industry’s commitment to moving oil safely by train in a speech Thursday to energy and financial industry executives.

“We share the secretary’s sense of urgency and want to help instill public confidence in rail’s ability to meet the demand for moving more energy resources in this country,” Hamberger said in a summary of his speech provided by the rail association.

U.S. crude oil production is forecast to reach 8.5 million barrels per day by the end of 2014 — up from 5 million barrels per day in 2008. The increase is overwhelmingly due to the fracking boom in North Dakota’s Bakken region. Fracking involves the fracturing of rock with pressurized liquid to free oil and natural gas unreachable through conventional drilling.

Freight railroads in the U.S. transported nearly 234,000 carloads of crude oil in 2012, up from just 9,500 in 2008. Early data suggest that rail carloads of crude surpassed 400,000 in 2013, according to the railroad association.

“The large-scale shipments of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement. “While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.”

Freight rail lines across the U.S. frequently run through densely populated areas, from small towns to large cities. Many of the lines were laid out in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

At the same time the NTSB was releasing its recommendations, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called for new steps to protect communities from accidents involving oil trains and other hazardous materials, including fees on companies that ship crude oil by rail and on industries that use oil.

The money would go into a fund to rebuild rail lines, Emanuel told a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington. Chicago is a major freight rail hub. Emanuel’s proposal was endorsed by the mayors of Philadelphia, Madison and Milwaukee, Wis., Kansas City, Kan., and Peoria, Ill.

Rail industry officials bristled at the notion of a tax on their customers.

“Freight railroads each year invest roughly $25 billion of their own funds into the nationwide rail network so taxpayers don’t have to, and the result is rail infrastructure that is the envy of the world,” Hamberger said. “As we’ve seen with other federal tax and fee proposals, the end result is unfortunately that consumers often end up footing the bill.”

Supporters of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline say the risk of transporting oil by rail highlights the need for the pipeline, which would carry oil derived from tar sands in western Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. A spur off the pipeline is planned for the Bakken region. Oil started flowing Wednesday through a southern leg of the pipeline from Oklahoma to the Houston region.

Jack Koraleski, CEO of Union Pacific, the nation’s largest freight railroad, told The Associated Press the railroad industry already plans to begin treating crude oil like a toxic chemical and carefully plan out the safest routes possible using existing federal rules for the most hazardous chemicals. He said the decision was made as a result of the meeting with Foxx.

“We’re going to route all crude oil through that same process,” he said. “By any stretch of the imagination, our performance in crude oil is incredibly safe. But there are some things we can do to make it safer.”

Government regulations require more than two dozen different factors be considered to determine the best route for dangerous shipments to follow. But that doesn’t always mean those shipments are routed around cities because the main route through a city might be considered the safest option since it might have better-maintained tracks and safer crossings, Koraleski said.

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