Immediate Ban Called for on Puncture-prone Rail Cars Carrying Volatile Crude Oil Across United States

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Jared Margolis, Center for Biological Diversity, (971) 717-6404
Michael Lang, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, (503) 490-3979

Immediate Ban Called for on Puncture-prone Rail Cars Carrying Volatile Crude Oil Across United States

New Rules Fail to Protect Public Safety, Nation's Waterways, Wildlife

PORTLAND, OREGON - In response to inadequate federal proposals for regulating transport of volatile crude oil by rail, the Center for Biological Diversity (“Center”), Adirondack Mountain Club (“ADK”) and Friends of the Columbia Gorge (“Friends”) filed comments today calling for an immediate ban on puncture-prone tank cars involved in several explosive accidents.

The legacy DOT-111 tank cars remain in widespread use despite the National Transportation Safety Board’s acknowledgment that they’re likely to breach in derailments. The new rules proposed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration allow for the dangerous tank cars to continue in service over a five-year phase-out period. The groups also filed a petition for an emergency order, asking the Department of Transportation to immediately require comprehensive oil-spill response plans for oil trains.

“Allowing these dangerously deficient tank cars to remain in service is playing Russian roulette with public safety,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney at the Center who focuses on the impacts of energy development on endangered species. “These tank cars put our health and the environment at risk, so allowing their continued use is unacceptable.”

The proposed regulations are intended to address the risks associated with the recent rapid increase in oil train traffic, which has grown from virtually nothing in 2008 to more than 400,000 rail cars of oil in 2013, moving billions of gallons of oil through towns and cities ill-equipped to respond to the kind of fiery explosions and spills that have occurred across the country in recent years. 

“The proposed rules just don’t go far enough to protect people from these bomb trains,” says Margolis. “These regulations simply sanction business-as-usual, ensuring the ongoing transport of billions of gallons of crude oil through our cities and sensitive wildlife habitats at unsafe speeds, in unsafe tanks.” 

The groups’ call for updated oil-spill response plans was spurred by grossly inadequate existing regulations that do not require oil shippers to ensure that sufficient equipment and personnel will be available to respond to a worst-case spill event. This puts the burden on state and local responders, rather than those profiting from shipping the toxic, flammable liquids.

“Increased traffic of dangerous oil trains puts our communities and the Columbia River Gorge at risks of accidents and oil spills,” said Michael Lang, Friends’ conservation director. “The new federal rules must ensure that our communities and the iconic resources of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area are protected from oil train accidents. Ultimately, oil trains don’t belong in the Gorge, and we are calling for an analysis of the threats and specific means for avoiding impacts to public safety and fish and wildlife habitat.” 

Along with the comments, more than 18,000 members of the Center have submitted letters to the Department of Transportation calling for a ban on the DOT-111 bomb cars.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released last week echoes the groups’ concerns. It states that “without timely action to address safety risks posed by increased transport of oil and gas by pipeline and rail, additional accidents that could have been prevented or mitigated may endanger the public and call into question the readiness of transportation networks in the new oil and gas environment.”

Background

Oil transport, especially by rail, has dramatically increased in recent years. A series of fiery oil-train derailments has occurred in the United States and Canada, resulting in hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil being spilled into waterways. The worst was a derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people, forced the evacuation of 2,000 people, and incinerated portions of a popular tourist town. The most recent explosive derailment, occurred in April in downtown Lynchburg, Va., resulting in crude oil leaking out of punctured tank cars and setting the James River on fire.

Most of this oil is being transported in older DOT-111 tank cars, which have been known for decades to be puncture-prone.

“Given the unprecedented recent increase in rail transport of oil throughout North America, and new knowledge concerning the risks of transporting oil by rail, there is a far greater risk for impacts to people and the environment from a derailment and oil spill than was the case just a few years ago,” the groups’ comments state. “This new information serves to heighten the immediate need for a ban on the use of DOT-111 tank cars, and the promulgation of rules that ensure sufficient protections for people and the environment. More must be done to prevent fiery derailments and spills that will continue to endanger Americans in their homes and wild animals and ecosystem along busy rail corridors.”

The unprecedented boom in oil-train traffic has caught responders unaware, and there is a lack of sufficient personnel and equipment to respond to a spill event. Since many oil trains travel through densely populated areas and along waterways where there are protected species and critical habitat, the lack of comprehensive plans for responding to oil spills puts people and species at risk. Requiring comprehensive plans would ensure that sufficient resources will be available for a worst-case spill event.

The groups contend the proposed rules must be accompanied by an analysis of the potential impacts to the environment and endangered species pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act. The government has failed to provide a thorough analysis of the environmental impacts of the proposed rules, and has not even considered reasonable alternatives, such as an immediate ban on the use of the legacy DOT-111 tank cars. It has also failed to initiate consultation pursuant to the Endangered Species Act, ignoring the continuing harm that oil trains pose to our most imperiled species.   

“These spills continue to pose completely unacceptable threats to people and drinking water supplies as well as to wildlife, including endangered species,” said Margolis. “Regulators have known for decades that these outdated tank cars are prone to puncture in derailments. Waiting another five years to get them off the tracks is nothing short of reckless.” 

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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