Federal regulators issue new rules for oil trains

Capital New York | May 1, 2015 | Column by Scott Waldman

ALBANY—Oil trains will be thicker, have more advanced braking systems and additional protective shields under new federal rules announced Friday, but the most dangerous cars could remain on the tracks for an additional three years.

An oil trian. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Oil trains have exploded about a dozen times in the last two years in North American, killing dozens and narrowly avoided more significant catastrophes. Yet, their use has increased more than 4,000 percent in just a few years as a fracking boom in North Dakota fuels a major domestic expansion of crude oil production. The new oil train regulations released Friday are among the first major attempts by American and Canadian regulators to address the danger posed by the trains, which travel throughout New York every day.

“Safety has been our top priority at every step in the process for finalizing this rule, which is a significant improvement over the current regulations and requirements and will make transporting flammable liquids safer,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “Our close collaboration with Canada on new tank car standards is recognition that the trains moving unprecedented amounts of crude by rail are not U.S. or Canadian tank cars – they are part of a North American fleet and a shared safety challenge.”

The older DOT-111 train cars, which are considered to be the most dangerous oil tankers on the rails, must be retrofitted or phased out by January 2018. The retrofit deadlines vary based on the type of cars, but the last won't be addressed until 2025. Newer train cars will be thicker and constructed with protective shields. Local communities must be notified about oil shipped there. Trains must use electronically controlled pneumatic brakes within eight years.

There will be speed restrictions of 40 miles per hour in “high-threat” urban areas. However, in New York, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and other upstate cities that see significant oil train traffic are not considered “high threat” by the federal government. Buffalo and New York City made the list.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called on federal regulators to strengthen oil train requirements and has asked for oil producers to reduce volatility before crude oil is shipped.

The new regulations do not require oil companies to reduce the volatility of oil before it ships, which many said was essential to make the crude less likely to explode in an accident.

In a release, the Transportation department referred to the new regulations and schedule as “aggressive.” However, many of those who closely track the use of oil trains disagreed with that statement.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said the new regulations did not get the most dangerous cars off the tracks quickly enough.

“There is good news here and bad news here,” Schumer said in a statement. “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 to implement it.”

On Friday, Foxx agreed that the rules could have been stronger.

“We could have both been more aggressive but at some point … this schedule is based on the pragmatic fact that both countries are trying to get there as fast as possible,” Foxx said during a briefing with reporters Friday, Politico reported.

The energy industry immediately pushed back on the regulation and schedule.

American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers Executive Vice President Brendan Williams said the D.O.T. should pay more attention to the root cause of the accidents, which are track conditions.

“We intend to work with DOT to implement today’s mitigation-focused rulemaking to the greatest extent possible, but caution that this aggressive retrofit schedule is unrealistic and may be disruptive to transporting crude oil to markets across the country.”


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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.