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Weak Oil-Train Regulations Don't Go Nearly Far Enough, Experts Warn

Proposed rules prioritize industry over community and environmental safety

A 'bomb train' protest in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, earlier this year. (Photo: Light Brigading)

Environmental groups say the Obama administration's new crude-by-rail regulations (pdf), proposed Wednesday, don't go nearly far enough to reduce the risk posed by hazardous rail cars carrying oil and ethanol across long distances.
The proposed rules, which include a phase-out of older tank cars and new brake controls and speed restrictions, come in the wake of a crude-by-rail boom that's led to an increase in derailments and disasters like the one in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec last year that killed 47 people. A train carrying crude oil derailed in Seattle on Thursday, with no spills or injuries reported.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) acknowledges: "The safety risk presented by transporting Bakken crude oil by rail is magnified both by an increasing volume of Bakken being shipped by throughout the U.S. and the large distances over which the product is shipped. In 2008, 9,500 rail-carloads of crude moved through our country compared to last year, when there were 415,000 rail-carloads."
But the DOT's proposal, which will now go through a 60-day comment period, doesn't reflect that level of urgency, environmentalists say.

"Today the Obama administration announced weak new standards for high-hazard flammable trains that give the oil industry a license to threaten the safety of millions of Americans and leave communities and emergency responders holding the bag," Matt Krogh, ForestEthics campaigner, said in a statement. ForestEthics was specifically calling for an "opt-out" choice, through which communities could say no to so-called 'bomb trains' in their towns. 

Krogh continued:

The administration seems to have carefully calculated and managed the inconvenience of these rules to the oil industry, but they’ve severely underestimated the threat of these trains to the American public...The worst of these oil tanker cars are unsafe at any speed — they should be banned immediately, not years down the line. The maximum speed of these trains should be no faster than what a tanker car can safely contain without a spill or explosion after a derailment.

The DOT proposal would require old and dangerous tank cars be off the tracks starting in 2017. But more immediate action is warranted, said EarthJustice attorney Patti Goldman:

An immediate ban on shipping volatile crude in the DOT-111 tank cars is in order. That’s why we and our partners have called for an emergency ban of this type of outdated, accident-prone rail car. The public demands that the federal government crack down on automakers where there is a serious safety risk. We should do the same for the oil industry.

A report issued in May by Oil Change International described the "reckless expansion of crude-by-rail in North America" and indicated that oil-train capacity could grow to over five times current levels by 2016.

Ron Wyden, Democratic U.S. Senator from Oregon — where the amount of oil hauled by rail increased last year by 250 percent — said in a statement that the DOT's notification requirement falls short. As proposed, the rule would require only trains containing one million gallons of Bakken crude oil to notify State Emergency Response Commissions about crude oil barreling through their state.

“The failure to broaden notification requirements is 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," Wyden said.

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