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A BNSF Railway oil train in Trempealeau, Wisconsin. (Photo: Roy Luck/flickr/cc)

Despite Calls for Immediate Ban, Oil-By-Rail Industry Bullies Regulators to Keep Cars on Tracks

Environmentalists say proposed regulations "simply sanction business-as-usual"

Deirdre Fulton

Amid calls for an outright ban of old, dangerous tank cars that transport highly volatile crude oil by rail, industry leaders are pushing to keep them on the tracks even longer.

Top oil and railroad lobbyists on Tuesday urged federal regulators to give them as long as seven years to upgrade unsafe rail cars that have been at the center of devastating derailments, spills, and fires in the U.S. and Canada.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in July proposed new regulations to govern the crude-by-rail boom; the plan calls for a two-to-five-year phase-out of older tank cars as well as new brake controls and speed restrictions. The deadline for comments on the new rules, which environmentalists said didn't go nearly far enough, was midnight Tuesday.

According to Fuel Fix, a Houston-based outlet covering the energy business, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Association of American Railroads are asking regulators to give manufacturing facilities six months to a year to ramp up capacity for handling retrofits of older DOT-111 tank cars made before October 2011, and then allow another three years to retrofit or replace them, for a potential total of four years. For some of the more resilient "1232" tank cars constructed since 2011, retrofits could be completed after an additional three years, meaning up to seven years from now, under API’s plan.

"The oil industry is expanding on a rail system that is patently unsafe for trains moving millions of gallons of hazardous, explosive crude oil, and so far the federal government appears asleep at the switch."
—Matt Krogh, ForestEthics

In a conference call with reporters, API president Jack Gerard said "current proposals could stifle North America’s energy renaissance and curtail substantial volumes of U.S. and Canadian oil production."

"The timeline proposed by [the DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration] for completing these retrofits is not feasible," Gerard said. "PHMSA’s timeline could harm consumers by disrupting the production and transportation of goods that play major roles in our economy, including chemicals, gasoline, crude oil and ethanol."

Another industry group, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, which represents refineries, is calling for an even longer timeline of 10 years.

But some experts say any amount of time the so-called "bomb trains" remain on the tracks is too long. On Tuesday, the Center for Biological Diversity, Adirondack Mountain Club, and Friends of the Columbia Gorge filed comments on the proposed regulations calling for "an immediate ban on puncture-prone tank cars involved in several explosive accidents."

"The proposed rules just don’t go far enough to protect people from these bomb trains," said Jared Margolis, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity who focuses on the impacts of energy development on endangered species. "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."

Adding their voices to the mix, the chairmen of two transportation committees in the Minnesota House and Senate wrote to federal officials Tuesday also urging that the older DOT-111 tank cars be banned immediately from crude oil transport, the Associated Press reports.

A multi-year phaseout “is unacceptable in light of significant growth in accidents and derailments and warnings by the National Transportation Safety Board that the transport of volatile crude in DOT-111 tank cars poses an imminent hazard to public health and safety,” wrote Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble, who serve districts in Minneapolis, where about 50 oil trains, typically with 100 or more tank cars each, pass through weekly.

"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."
—Jared Margolis, Center for Biological Diversity

According to ForestEthics, 25 million Americans live close enough to an oil-by-rail route that they would have to be evacuated in the case of an explosion. With those people in mind, ForestEthics joined four other public interest groups—Earthjustice, Oil Change International, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Sierra Club—in filing technical comments on the DOT's plan.

"The administration is on the wrong track when it comes to protecting the 25 million Americans who live in the oil train blast zone, and the millions more who live downstream and downwind," said Matt Krogh, ForestEthics campaign director. "The oil industry is expanding on a rail system that is patently unsafe for trains moving millions of gallons of hazardous, explosive crude oil, and so far the federal government appears asleep at the switch."

Citizen groups also submitted also 145,000 individual comments to the DOT critical of the proposed rules.

The department's final regulations are expected early next year.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

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