Critics: Rail oil rules lax

Times Union | May 1, 2015 | Column by Brian Nearing

State and local elected officials in the Capital Region, along with numerous environmental and grass-roots groups, were unimpressed Friday with new crude oil train safety rules unveiled by the U.S. and Canada that aimed to reduce the risk of derailments, explosions and fires.

The rules would require a five-year phase-out of older, less-sturdy DOT-111 tank cars; impose train speed limits in some populated areas, but not the Capital Region; upgrade tanker car brakes by 2021 and apply new standards on how crude oil is rated for its explosive potential.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called the rules a "significant improvement" over current standards that apply to a surge in crude oil train shipments in this country and Canada. He said the rules would "harmonize" regulations to apply in both countries.

Foxx and Canadian Transport Minister Lisa Raitt touted a new regulation that will phase in a new kind of braking system — electronically controlled pneumatic brakes — on oil tanker cars. Foxx said it will reduce the stopping distances for such trains, which can haul 100 or more tankers carrying millions of gallons of crude oil.

There have been a number of oil train derailments that sparked massive explosions and fires, including one in Quebec in July 2013 that killed 47 people and incinerated a small downtown, as well as others in Virginia, North Dakota, Illinois, West Virginia, and Alabama, as well as the Canadian province of Ontario.

But critics included the rail industry, which called the new brake requirements expensive and unnecessary, and elected officials and train opponents, who complained the gradual phase-out of thousands of less-sturdy tankers will leave unsafe models on the tracks for years to come. Foxx called the timetable aggressive and workable.

One of the few positive reviews came from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who applauded the rules, adding they will "better protect our communities from the dangers posed by the transport of crude oil by rail."

Sen. Chuck Schumer said, "There is good news here and bad news here. The good news is that the standards for tank cars are tough and provide certainty, but the phase-out timeline lets the railroads take too long."

Congressman Paul Tonko, a Amsterdam Democrat, said he was disappointed a planned 40 mile-per-hour train speed limit for "high threat urban areas" will not include the Capital Region, where trains can continue to travel up to 50 mph. The reduced speed will apply to New York City and Buffalo, two cities that have populations of more than 100,000, which was one of the standards used by DOT; Albany has about 98,000 residents.

"The phase-out of older, inadequate tank cars is too slow ... at first glance it appears that more work needs to be done," Tonko added. Assemblyman Phil Steck, a Colonie Democrat, called the rules "cosmetic" because they did not set stricter limits requiring removal of the most explosive components of the crude oil before shipment.

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy said the new rule "also falls short in the area of community notification. While the rule seeks to ensure that the railroads notify the state and local officials to discuss routing decisions, we need assurance that every carrier works with the county and other government entities to protect public safety."

The rail industry criticized the requirement that tanker cars have the ECP brakes or be limited to speeds of no more than 30 mph.

"DOT has no substantial evidence to support a safety justification for mandating ECP brakes," said Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. He called the requirement a "rash rush to judgment" and predicted "slow-moving trains will back up the entire rail system."

The oil industry said it supported the tanker phase-out, but called the schedule unrealistically short. Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, said it will "lead to (tanker) shortages that impact consumers and the broader economy."

Gerard also criticized the new braking requirements as "marginal at best." He said more should be done to beef up "inspection and maintenance of train tracks, axles and other railroad equipment."

An Albany grass-roots group that has been pushing for an oil train ban in the state blasted the rules.

"They are lame and anemic," said Sandy Steubing, of People of Albany United for Safe Energy. "We're being shown time and again how government truly operates, where our regulatory agencies are there to allow the corporations to continue their activities, not to prohibit them."

Environmental and citizens groups included Earthjustice, ForestEthics, Oil Change International, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Riverkeeper, Waterkeeper,Washington Environmental Council and Natural Resources Defense Council. They also criticized the rules as weak and ineffectual.

"These regulations arrive years late and with the sticky fingerprints of an army of oil lobbyists all over them," says Matt Krogh, director of ForestEthics Extreme Oil Campaign. "Twenty-five million Americans live in the oil train blast zone and millions more depend on drinking water that is threatened by an oil train disaster.'

Sean Dixon, a staff attorney for the Hudson River advocacy group at Riverkeeper, said the rule failed to address issues like "rail and bridge infrastructure programs, oversight gaps, and outdated spill response planning regulations ... a host of problems in dire need of attention."

bnearing@timesunion.com • 518-454-5094 • @Bnearing10

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.