A Third Blast on Oil Trains Stirs Scrutiny

By:  The New York Times - Jad Mouawad
Source: The New York Times

For the third time in less than a month, a train carrying flammable crude oil has derailed and burst into flames, prompting questions over whether stricter measures being considered to ensure their safety will be enough.

All three accidents involved a newer generation of tank cars that are supposed to be sturdier and safer than older models.

Those cars will be upgraded as part of a new federal standard that is being phased in this year and will take effect in 2017. The new standard will require thicker steel shielding and better thermal protections, and will have to be fitted with more crash-resistant valves. Older models, mostly built before 2011, that cannot be refitted with those features will have to be retired from use with hazardous materials. 

But some lawmakers and safety experts are worried the new measures might prove inadequate.

“We shouldn’t have to tolerate or get into our minds that accidents and derailments and loss of hazardous materials is normal,” said Brigham A. McCown, a former administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “It’s not.”

The most recent accident took place on Thursday in a rural area of northern Illinois, south of Galena. Two of its cars ruptured and burst into flames after a BNSF train loaded with crude from North Dakota derailed.

BNSF is still investigating the cause of the accident, according to a spokesman, Michael Trevino.

But even before that accident, lawmakers at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Tuesday were pressuring regulators to act more aggressively.

“We are not moving fast enough,” Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington State, told Anthony Foxx, the transportation secretary, referring to the adoption of new tank car standards. She said that she planned to introduce a bill calling for stricter tank car standards than the ones currently contemplated by the Transportation Department.

The new tank cars for oil and ethanol should have thicker hulls, she said, adding that older cars should be phased out more quickly than is currently being considered. The Department of Transportation’s new rules are expected to be completed in May.

Mr. Foxx responded that there was a “high level of urgency” to imposing the new rule on tanker cars, but was not specific on a date when the new regulations would be adopted.

The recent accidents — which also occurred in West Virginia and Ontario — are the latest in a series of derailments that have accompanied the booming business of carrying crude oil by rails from North Dakota in recent years.

Oil production has surged there, reaching about 1.2 million barrels a day. Most of that oil relies on trains, not pipelines, to reach refineries on the East and West Coasts, as well as the Gulf Coast.

As a result, hundreds of mile-long oil trains crisscross the nation each week, though the exact number is not made public by rail companies. It is unclear if derailments on oil trains occur at a higher rate than on trains hauling different cargo, like grain or coal.

Some experts say that the accidents are adding to the pressure on an industry that, at least for now, has little choice but to ship the oil on trains.

Kevin Book, an analyst with ClearView Energy Partners, said that fewer gallons of crude oil spilled over all last year than in 2013, but that they were spilled from a greater number of incidents and in a larger number of states.

“That puts more lawmakers on the spot to respond to constituent concerns,” he said.

And a chilling projection by the Department of Transportation last month forecast that trains hauling oil or ethanol would derail on average 10 times a year over the next two decades, according to a recent report by The Associated Press.

Making matters worse, crude oil from the Bakken formation is laden with gas particles that make it more flammable than other grades of oil.

Bakken oil is prized by refiners because it can easily be turned it into gasoline or jet fuel. It is those properties, though, that make the oil more prone to bursting into flames in the event of a crash. There are no federal rules on what oil producers should do to stabilize the oil before shipping by rail.

Oil producers, in response, have said those concerns are misplaced. Stripping out those gases — commonly known as vapor pressure — from the oil before shipment would increase production costs but would not make the oil safer, they say.

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent investigative agency, has recently identified the hazards of oil trains as one of its top 10 safety concerns this year.

The safety board has called on rail companies to reduce the hazards of carrying such flammable material on rails, for instance by selecting routes that reduce the amount of hazardous material that travels through populated areas.

“Safety, however, has not kept pace with the sheer demand and vigor of the market, potentially placing many who live amid the complex rail network in danger,” Christopher A. Hart, the safety board’s acting chairman, said in a statement last month.

Thursday’s accident followed what has become a familiar pattern: A mile-long train loaded with crude derailed while churning through a rural area, puncturing cars and igniting its cargo.

The fire and plumes of smoke could be seen for miles, according to several news reports. No injuries were reported.

The accident occurred on a major rail line by the Mississippi River that handles a high level of oil train traffic. Six cars derailed, according to local officials, and at least two burst into flames. All but two of the BNSF train’s 105 cars were carrying crude oil. The other two were buffer cars filled with sand.

The cars that derailed were known as CPC-1232s, the latest generation of tank cars that was built since 2011. Last month, a CSX train with 109 tank cars of oil derailed in Fayette County, W.Va., erupting into flames and leaking oil for several days. This followed another explosion, in Ontario, that involved a 100-car train, where 29 cars derailed. Both trains were traveling under the speed limit.

The hazards of carrying flammable material in the older generation of tank cars, known as DOT-111, were known for years.

Those risks became apparent after a runaway oil train caused a deadly blast in Canada that killed 47 people in July 2013. Since then, American and Canadian regulators have sought to improve standards and phase out the older models.

But to Mr. McCown, the former federal regulator, the push to improve tanker cars is only part of the solution.

“We haven’t focused on the real issue here,” he said. “If the cars stayed on the rail tracks, we wouldn’t have these discussions.”