Following a series of explosive disasters when trains carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota derailed, the federal government has issued a warning saying that this type of crude is "more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil."
The safety alert comes just days after a BNSF derailment near Casselton, North Dakota shot a fireball and black smoke into the sky, and amidst a booming oil-by-rail business that critics have warned is a surefire plan for more accidents.
From the statement issued Thursday:
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is issuing this safety alert to notify the general public, emergency responders and shippers and carriers that recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.
Based upon preliminary inspections conducted after recent rail derailments in North Dakota, Alabama and Lac-Megantic, Quebec involving Bakken crude oil, PHMSA is reinforcing the requirement to properly test, characterize, classify, and where appropriate sufficiently degasify hazardous materials prior to and during transportation. [...]
PHMSA stresses to offerors the importance of appropriate classification and packing group (PG) assignment of crude oil shipments, whether the shipment is in a cargo tank, rail tank car or other mode of transportation. Emergency responders should remember that light sweet crude oil, such as that coming from the Bakken region, is typically assigned a packing group I or II. The PGs mean that the material’s flashpoint is below 73 degrees Fahrenheit and, for packing group I materials, the boiling point is below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This means the materials pose significant fire risk if released from the package in an accident
In addtion to the dangers the crude holds, McClatchy reports on how problems with the rail tank cars themselves contribute to accidents, yet the tank cars continue to operate, despite evidence of safety problems going back years. Curtis Tate writes:
The rail industry supports tougher safety requirements for new and existing tank cars, including thicker shells, puncture-resistant shields and stronger valve fittings to prevent spills and fires if the cars should derail. But new rules have been delayed amid concern about the estimated $1 billion cost of making the changes and the time it would take amid a surge in profitable shipments.
The Railway Supply Institute, an industry group, last month proposed a 10-year timeline for retrofitting the entire tanker fleet.
Tate goes on to describe the DOT-111 tank cars, dubbed by one Chicago suburb village president as the "Ford Pinto" of railcars, and responsible for three rail accidents in 2013.
Eight U.S. incidents involving DOT-111 tank cars in the seven years before Lac-Megantic could have warned federal regulators that the cars weren’t up to the task.
The NTSB expressed concern about the integrity of the DOT-111 cars as far back as 1991, and regulators had proposed studying whether the fleet could be improved at least a decade before that.