Coalition Files Lawsuit Over Flawed Federal Regulations of 'Bomb Trains'

A train carrying Bakken crude derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013. The explosion and fire that resulted killed 47 people. (Photo: Paul Chiasson)

Coalition Files Lawsuit Over Flawed Federal Regulations of 'Bomb Trains'

'Pleas from the public to stop hauling explosive crude in these tank cars have fallen on deaf ears, leaving people across the country vulnerable to catastrophic accidents.'

A coalition of prominent environmental groups on Thursday filed a lawuit against the Department of Transportation over objections to what they say are inadequate federal regulations of trains carrying volatile and dangerous crude oil which have proven a grave threat to the communities and wilderness areas they pass through as they criss-cross the country with increasing frequency.

"We're suing the administration because these rules won't protect the 25 million Americans living in the oil train blast zone." --Todd Paglia, ForestEthics

Submitted by Earthjustice on behalf of numerous organizations--including ForestEthics, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, and several regional groups--the lawsuit, submitted to the 9th Circuit argues that recently issued crude-by-rail regulations by the DOT are not up to the challenge posed by the rapid increase of trains transporting crude oil across the nation. The dangers have been made evident, say the groups involved, by a seemingly endless series of fiery--and in some cases deadly--oil train derailments in recent years.

The recent surge in U.S. and Canadian oil production--much of it from Bakken shale mining operation in North Dakota and tar sands from Alberta, Canada--has led to a more than 4,000 percent increase in crude oil shipped by rail from 2008 to 2013, the groups stated, with much of that traffic coming from trains with 100 to 120 oil cars that can be more than 1.5 miles long. That increased traffic, the coalition argues, has resulted in an unprecedented rate of derailments and spills, with more train accidents in 2013 than in the 38 years from 1975 to 2012 combined.

Less than a week after the DOT released its final tank car safety rule on May 1, as the coalition noted in a press statement, a train carrying crude oil exploded outside of Heimdal, North Dakota. Under the current standards, the groups argue, the kind of tank cars involved in that accident would not be retired from crude oil shipping or retrofitted for another five to eight years.

"The Department of Transportation's weak oil train standard just blew up in its face on the plains of North Dakota last week," said Patti Goldman, an Earthjustice attorney. "Pleas from the public, reinforced by the National Transportation Safety Board, to stop hauling explosive crude in these tank cars have fallen on deaf ears, leaving people across the country vulnerable to catastrophic accidents."

As Kate Sheppard reports for the Huffington Post:

The Department of Transportation rules [...] call for phasing out older models of tankers that carry crude oil and other flammable liquids. But it could take up to 10 years to phase out some tankers -- an "unduly long phase-out period for tank cars that are prone to puncture, spill oil, ignite, and harm communities in train accidents," the suit argues.

The rules apply only to trains carrying a continuous row of 20 or more tank cars loaded with flammable liquids, or those carrying a total of 35 or more tank cars, which the groups say will allow unsafe tankers to stay in use.

The lawsuit contends the new rules fail to require enough notification for communities and first responders who would be called upon in the event of an accident -- a criticism echoed by the largest firefighters union.

According to the coalition behind the lawsuit, the DOT rules fail to protect people and communities in several major ways:

  • The rule leaves hazardous cars carrying volatile crude oil on the tracks for up to 10 years.
  • The rule has gutted public notification requirements, leaving communities and emergency responders in the dark about the oil trains and explosive crude oil rumbling through their towns and cities.
  • New cars will require thicker shells to reduce punctures and leaks, but retrofit cars are subject to a less protective standard.
  • The standard doesn't impose adequate speed limits to ensure that oil trains run at safe speeds. Speed limits have been set for "high threat urban areas," but very few cities have received that designation.

"Explosive oil trains present real and imminent danger, and protecting the public and waterways requires an aggressive regulatory response," said Marc Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance. "Instead, the Department of Transportation has finalized an inadequate rule that clearly was influenced by industry and will not prevent more explosions and fires in our communities. We hope our challenge will result in a rule that puts the safety of people and their waterways first."

"We're suing the administration because these rules won't protect the 25 million Americans living in the oil train blast zone," said Todd Paglia, ForestEthics executive director. "Let's start with common sense -- speed limits that are good for some cities are good for all communities, 10 years is too long to wait for improved tank cars, and emergency responders need to know where and when these dangerous trains are running by our homes and schools."

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