Tentative advances toward safer oil trains

Times Union | February 22, 2014 | Column by Eric Anderson

The railroad industry is moving belatedly to ease safety concerns about trains hauling crude oil, agreeing to measures such as closer track inspections and lower speed limits through densely populated areas.

A railroad oil tanker car is parked along Interstate 787 in downtown Albany, N.Y., on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. The Port of Albany has become a hub for the U.S. oil business, taking shipments from North Dakota's Bakken Shale daily by mile-long trains and shipping it in tankers down the Hudson River to refineries. Opponents of a proposal to build boilers to liquefy heavy crude passing through Albany by rail are drawing attention to the capital’s emergence as a major hub for the transport of oil that’s widely considered risky from an environmental and safety standpoint. (AP Photo/Mike Groll) ORG XMIT: NYMG207

But for many, these steps aren't enough.

"It's very disappointing," said one rail safety and security consultant, Arlington, Va.-based Fred Millar. His biggest criticism: The measures are voluntary.

"What they could be doing is 'interim final regulations,' that could be quickly implemented, he said.

"When it comes to keeping our railways and communities safe, I am in favor of an all-of-the-above approach that includes many of the efforts announced (Friday): setting new speed limits, increasing track inspections and equipping trains with advanced braking systems," U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer said Friday. But, "there is simply no replacement for federal rule-making requiring the phase-out or retrofitting of outdated tank cars," he said. "Therefore, while these measures are a very positive step, I will keep my foot on the gas to get federal standards to require safer cars on the rails."

The safety of trains carrying crude oil hydrofracked from the Bakken Shale oil fields of North Dakota has been a concern after several derailments and explosions, including one last July in Lac Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people and destroyed the center of town.

Bakken crude is far more flammable and likely to explode than anyone previously knew.

In the Capital Region, Bakken crude trains roll through neighborhoods in Albany, Watervliet, Cohoes, Waterford and Mechanicville, often passing within a few feet of homes and apartments.

The majority of tank cars don't meet the latest safety standards, again voluntary because federal regulators have yet to draw up mandatory rules.

Last week, Canadian Pacific Railway said it would charge shippers $325 a car starting in mid-March if their tank cars don't meet the new standards.

"Canadian Pacific believes upgraded tank cars are the best investments to enhance safety and is encouraging the shipping industry, which supplies the cars, to adopt safer tank car technologies as quickly as possible," spokesman Ed Greenberg said.

Railroads can't refuse cargo, even though they may deem it risky. Under federal regulations they must carry any legal cargo, including Bakken crude. They also bear full liability should there be an accident.

"The railroads have all the liability right now," Millar said. "Says Congress: If we transfer this to shippers, you'll have even less incentive to operate safely."

One major concern of area residents is that the oil trains pass so closely to homes.

Millar said 10 cities, including Albany, had introduced ordinances to route trains with hazardous cargo away from urban areas.

But the ordinances were pre-empted in 2007 by what he describes as an "eye-opening railroad-friendly law" that cloaked routings in secrecy.

Some shippers are beginning to retire the older tank cars that have breached and burned in previous derailments.

Irving Oil Co. said last week it was phasing out its older tank cars and using only those meeting the latest safety standards by the end of April.

It asked its shippers and marketers to do the same by the end of the year.

Irving's Saint John, New Brunswick, refinery was the destination not only of the Lac Megantic train, but also of a tanker that ran aground a year ago in the Hudson River after leaving the Port of Albany. The ship was double-hulled and no oil was spilled.

BNSF Railway, meanwhile, said Friday it would buy 5,000 reinforced tank cars to carry oil and ethanol.

Is it realistic to think that railroads can re-route trains away from populated areas? Millar thinks so.

He said freight lines exist that run outside such large urban areas as Chicago and Cleveland. Even in the Capital Region, he believes there may be alternatives to the crowded urban rail corridors.

Transportation officials say they'll continue to pursue additional safety measures.

"Safety is our top priority, and we have a shared responsibility to make sure crude oil is transported safely from origin to destination," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxxsaid Friday afternoon.

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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.