New federal oil train rules met with skepticism by environmental groups

The Legislative Gazette | May 11, 2015 | Column by Keith J. Ferrante

In response to widespread concern over the transportation of crude oil by rail, the U.S. Department of Transportation finalized new rules for oil trains earlier this month. The final rules were developed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), in coordination with Canadian authorities.

First responders engage in safety training for tanker cars carrying crude oil at the Port of Albany. In response to widespread concern over the transportation of crude oil by rail, the U.S. Department of Transportation finalized new rules for oil trains earlier this month. Photo by AP.

The rules establish new standards for tanker cars and set a risk-based retrofitting schedule for older tanker cars carrying crude oil and ethanol.

They will also require a new braking standard for trains in hopes of reducing the severity of an accident. Additionally, they create new protocols for operating trains including new routing requirements, speed restrictions and information for local government agencies. Lastly, the new rules will mandate provide new sampling and testing requirements to improve classification of energy products being transported by rail.

The most recent disaster involving oil trains occurred last week in North Dakota, when an oil train exploded in the town of Heimdal. A train consisting of 109 railcars —107 of which contained crude oil — derailed and caused a fire. Although there were no injuries, residents were required to evacuate the town until the cleanup effort was complete.

A number of other oil train incidents have occurred in recent years, most notably in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013 when a train exploded near the town's center, destroying property and killing 47 people. There are numerous risks associated with the oil trains, ranging from the railcars themselves and their proximity to population centers to the speed at which they travel.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement in response to the adoption of new safety regulations for the shipment of crude oil by rail.

"New York has taken a proactive role under our administration when it comes to inspecting rail cars and rail facilities within our state's borders, but the fundamental responsibility for the safe transportation of crude oil across the country continues to reside with federal agencies," Cuomo said. "These stronger regulations are a step in the right direction, and we will continue to work alongside our federal partners to prevent crude oil disasters and ensure the safety of our communities."

In response to the new regulations, a coalition of Hudson River groups including Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson and the Waterkeeper Alliance have said the new protocols will keep dangerous operational components in place, particularly the DOT-111 railcar. These railcars could potentially still be used for another ten years under the plan.

Trains that carry fewer than 20 railcars of flammable liquid in a continuous link-up can continue to use the DOT-111 railcar. Trains that have up to 35 cars with flammable liquid dispersed through a train can also continue to use the DOT-111.

Executive Director of Waterkeeper Alliance Marc Yaggi said allowing the use of older rail cars poses a risk to communities, waterways and drinking water in the future.

"Leaving these explosive oil trains on the rails for years to come means more derailments, spills and explosions will happen, and demonstrates that the government prioritizes corporate greed over the protection of the public and our waterways," Yaggi said.

Another concern is the speed limit of the trains, which will be restricted in high-threat urban areas, particularly in Buffalo and New York City. High-speed trains in highly populated areas remain a risk in the Capital Region also, with trains traveling through local communities and neighborhoods at close proximity, making the risk of derailment significant.

Sandy Steubing, spokeswoman for People of Albany United for Safe Energy, or PAUSE, said that derailments are always a possibility due to human error and mechanical failures.

"There will always be train derailments. However, there can be no margin for error with a substance that is this volatile," Steubing said. "Fortunately, world class scientists have proven we can rapidly phase out all fossil fuels." 

http://www.legislativegazette.com/Articles-c-2015-05-11-91723.113122-New-federal-oil-train-rules-met-with-skepticism-by-environmental-groups.html

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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.