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Transportation Board: Oil cars a threat

Railroads should re-route oil-filled trains to avoid heavily populated areas, according to recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The board also urged transportation regulators to work with railroads to make sure they have plans in place to handle “worst-case” scenarios involving derailed tanker cars carrying crude oil.

And the board called on regulators to crack down on shippers and rail carriers to make sure they properly classify hazardous material in railcars.

The board, which makes recommendations but can’t enforce them, on Friday urged the Department of Transportation to address the safety risk of transporting crude oil by rail.

In an unprecedented move, the NTSB issuing its recommendations in coordination with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

Crude oil shipments by rail have increased by over 400 percent since 2005, according to the Association of American Railroad’s Annual Report of Hazardous Materials.

The National Transportation Safety Board is concerned that major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences can occur when large volumes of crude oil or other flammable liquids are transported on a single train involved in an accident, as seen in the Lac Megantic, Quebec, accident, as well as several accidents the NTSB has investigated in the U.S.

The board’s recommendations stem from its investigation of those accidents.

“The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a news release. “While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.”

The NTSB issued three recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration:

  • Require expanded hazardous materials route planning for railroads to avoid populated and other sensitive areas.
  • Develop an audit program to ensure rail carriers that carry petroleum products have adequate response capabilities to address worst-case discharges of the entire quantity of product carried on a train.
  • Audit shippers and rail carriers to ensure that they are properly classifying hazardous materials in transportation and that they have adequate safety and security plans in place.

The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated accidents involving flammable liquids being transported in older DOT-111 tank cars, including the Dec. 30 derailment in Casselton, N.D., and the June 19, 2009, derailment in Cherry Valley, Ill.

After the Cherry Valley accident, the NTSB issued several safety recommendations to Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regarding the inadequate design and poor performance of the DOT-111 tank cars.

The recommendations include making the tank head and shell more puncture resistant and requiring that bottom outlet valves remain closed during accidents. Although PHMSA initiated rulemaking to address the safety issue; it has not issued any new rules.

In contrast, Canadian authorities are pushing hard for immediately requiring safer tanker cars.

“If unit trains of flammable liquids are going to be part of our nation’s energy future, we need to make sure the hazardous materials classification is accurate, the route is well planned, and the tank cars are as robust as possible,” Hersman said.

The NTSB and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada issued these safety recommendations jointly because railroad companies routinely operate crude oil unit trains in both countries and across the U.S-Canada border.

Trains carrying crude oil pass through Detroit Lakes both on the east-west Burlington Northern Santa Fe double track corridor and the north-south single-track Canadian Pacific line.

Investigators found that 60 of the 63 railcars that derailed in Lac Megantic were punctured. The cars released about 1.6 million gallons of crude oil that destroyed much of the town.

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