The US Department of Transportation has issued a safety advisory pleading with companies that transport crude oil by train to discontinue old railcars, a request that comes after a string of high-profile derailment accidents.
The advisory is non-binding, meaning it does not require companies to follow it, as an emergency order would. Yet it does apply to approximately 20,000 old tanker cars that companies rely on to carry Bakken crude from oil fields in North Dakota throughout the continent. The Transportation Department (DOT) recommended that only the sturdiest cars available are put to use, and that cars that cannot be destroyed should be updated.
Wednesday’s advisory came on the same day that the Transportation Department issued an emergency order forcing companies to provide communities alongside the rail routes with more information about the problems that are created when a spill or explosion takes place.
The American Petroleum Institute told the Wall Street Journal that the oil industry has already spent three years trying to update old cars, predicting that over the next year “about 60 percent of railcars will be state of the art, which is part of a long-term comprehensive effort to improve accident prevention, mitigation and emergency response.”
Still, the advisory immediately came under attack. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) told Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing that the advisory is adequate, though only as a first step.
“If we know that we want to get rid of these [cars] that we don’t think are a safe transport vehicle, we should come up with a date,” she said. “Making it voluntary isn’t enough.”
The DOT itself admitted crude shipments present “an imminent hazard” in an emergency order forcing companies to be more transparent with the areas they go through. Trains carrying oil generally include at least 100 cars. The emergency order requires all carloads with more than one million gallons of Bakken crude, equivalent to approximately 35 cars, to give local lawmakers notice that a train will be making its way through.
In response, the Association of American Railroads issuing a statement saying that freight lines have “for years worked with emergency responders and personnel to educate and inform them about the hazardous materials moving through their communities,” and that such “open and transparent communications” will go on, as quoted by Politico.
Companies shipping oil by rail have never been forced to notify communities regarding hazardous material on board until this week.
An estimated 715,000 barrels of Bakken crude oil are shipped by rail every day.
Foxx said the measures put in place Wednesday are only intended to be one of many steps toward preventing dangerous wrecks in the future. Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) praised the effort while advising that “these outdated tank cars are ticking time bombs, and local first responders need to know when they are coming and what they are carrying so they can be adequately prepared for any scenario.”
The announcements come as volunteers in Lynchburg, Virginia continue to clean up the aftermath of an accident in which 17 cars of a 105-car train derailed, with three falling into a river and spilling 20,000 gallons into the water. No one was injured in the incident, although much of the downtown area was evacuated while flames and smoke plumes filled the sky.
Even before the accident, though, the National Transportation Safety Board was calling for stricter safety standards on oil transportation.
“We are very clear that this issue needs to be acted on very quickly. There is a very high risk here that hasn’t been addressed,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman told reporters after a forum last month. “They aren’t moving fast enough.”
Hersman stepped down just days after the forum let out but told US News and World Report that during her time as chairman that few events – not even the Lac-Megantic derailment and explosion in Montreal, Quebec last year that killed nearly 50 people last year – were enough to convince her fellow bureaucrats to make the necessary changes.
“This is a tombstone mentality,” she explained. “We know the steps that will prevent or mitigate these accidents. What is missing is the will to require people to do so.”