A delay for train safety

Times Union | April 30, 2014 | Editorial Board

Our opinion: The rail and oil industries’ delay and denial on rail safety is bad enough, but it is unacceptable that the federal government is dragging its feet.

The game of hot potato currently playing out over replacing the ill-equipped tanker cars being used to transport Bakken crude oil is dispiriting, to say the least.

At a recent forum held by the National Transportation Safety Board on rail shipments of oil and ethanol, the rail and oil industries demonstrated the same tactics each has used before, with the rail industry dragging its heels over upgrading its electronic train control equipment and the oil industry in a perpetual state of denial that shipments pose any danger at all.

But it is altogether unacceptable that the federal government seems to be unable, unwilling or otherwise unprepared to do what Canada did last week: Boldly state that the DOT-111 tanker cars must be retired or retrofitted within three years, asking for better emergency response plans from rail carriers and seeking speed and route alternatives for communities.

The rupture-prone DOT-111 cars were at the heart of the Lac Megantic, Quebec, disaster last July that killed 47 people and incinerated 30 buildings. and at least seven other significant accidents in North America in the last year. These are the cars ringing Albany, going in and out of the Port of Albany, which has become a major shipping point for crude oil carried by massive trains from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. Nearly 3 billion gallons are moving annually through the port.

Four New York agencies are set to deliver a report to Gov. Andrew Cuomo this month on the state’s preparedness for oil spills from trains, ships and barges. Mr. Cuomo initiated a series of “inspection blitzes” to find issues that could lead to derailments or explosions.

These DOT-111 tankers make up 70 percent of all the cars in use at a time when the production and transport of this crude oil has seen phenomenal growth. Freight railroads transported 434,032 carloads of crude in 2013, up from just 9,500 in 2008.

The oil industry, which owns or leases most tank cars and would bear much of the cost of changes, has suggested voluntary standards agreed to by rail and oil three years ago are sufficient and that, to change standards, a “comprehensive examination” (i.e., lengthy delay) is warranted. In the face of evidence to the contrary — the explosions — the oil industry says the Bakken crude is not significantly different than other light crudes, such as those from Texas, and has yet to fully comply with the Transportation Department’s request for specifics about the oil’s makeup.

For its part, the freight railroad industry has proposed tougher tank-car standards, yet acknowledges it wants explicit guidance on whether the proposals will meet the eventual new rules. It does not want to make a substantial investment, only to find the cars don’t meet future federal standards.

That’s a fair request. The U.S. Department of Transportation says it will issue new regulations this week. But will the new rules go far enough? We need swift and decisive action before this hot potato explodes again.


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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.