What Obama administration's oil train safety plan means for Oregon, Washington

The Oregonian | July 23, 2014 | Column by Rob Davis

The U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled an oil train safety plan Wednesday that will require thousands of older, less-safe tank cars to be phased out or retrofitted within two years.

An oil train parked at a terminal near Clatskanie. The federal government on Wednesday proposed tighter safety standards for the tank cars that move oil throughout the Pacific Northwest. (Rob Davis/The Oregonian)

New tank cars will also have to be built to more stringent standards, representing the Obama administration's long-awaited response to the sharply increasing amount of oil traveling on the country's rail system.

The plan would also mandate speed limits for oil trains, to which railroads had already voluntarily agreed.

"If America is going to be a world leader in producing energy," said Anthony Foxx, the federal transportation secretary, "our job at this department is to ensure we're also a world leader in safely transporting it."

An ongoing oil boom in North Dakota has pushed an unprecedented amount of crude into the country's rail system, leading to a string of fiery accidents that have raised safety concerns nationwide. The amount of oil hauled by rail in Oregon increased last year by 250 percent, with more than 11 million barrels moving throughout the state.

Here's what the federal safety proposal means for Oregon and Washington:

1. Tank cars hauling oil and ethanol will become safer across the Pacific Northwest.

An oil train terminal near Clatskanie started requiring newer, safer tank cars to bring oil there on June 1. That was done voluntarily and covered only a small fraction of the oil trains moving in the Pacific Northwest.

The federal proposal will mandate improvements, increasing the safety of thousands of outdated tank cars hauling crude oil and ethanol. Those tank cars, called DOT-111s, were first identified as safety risks more than 20 years ago.

2. The federal government left plenty of wiggle room.

It's still unclear what the final safety rules will be. The Transportation Departmentannounced three options for new tank car designs and said it would pick one later.

Two would require tank cars to have thicker steel, which increases puncture resistance. A third option doesn't.

Foxx said he preferred the safest option, which increases steel thickness, rollover protection and brake systems. But the government will allow industry to lobby for other choices first.

3. This isn't a silver bullet.

Even when the country's rail fleet is upgraded, oil trains will not become impervious to accidents or major fires. Tank cars built to the latest safety standards have still ruptured in derailments. Ten of 13 cars that derailed in a fiery April accident in Lynchburg, Va. were newer models, including one that spilled more than 20,000 gallons of crude into a river there.

4. All first responders in the Pacific Northwest still won't know how many oil trains pass through their communities.

The federal proposal codifies requirements for railroads to tell states where they move large amounts of volatile crude from North Dakota's Bakken region. But railroads haul oil produced in other regions through Oregon's side of the Columbia River Gorge and have no obligation to tell firefighters or the public what they're doing.

Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats, immediately criticized the federal Transportation Department for leaving open that loophole. The two senators have aggressively pushed for expanded notices to firefighters.

Wyden called the failure "especially baffling, since the DOT's proposal would classify all oil and ethanol shipments as 'high-hazard flammable trains,' yet would only require railroads to provide advance notification to first responders when that oil originates in the Bakken."

5. The stronger tank car standards will be good for business in Oregon.

The Greenbrier Cos., a major tank car manufacturer based in Lake Oswego, has consistently pushed for the quick phase-out of old tank cars. New safety standards aren't expected to bring a windfall of jobs to Oregon. But they will help sustain one of the region's major employers.

"A final rule will provide the clarity the industry needs to make investments that ensure that crude oil and other flammable commodities are classified properly and transported in tank cars that are safer at any speed," Greenbrier spokesman Jack Isselmann said.

-- Rob Davis


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What Obama administration's oil train safety plan means for Oregon, Washington
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.