Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) pressed the Obama administration to more quickly finalize mandatory rules for oil tank cars hauling highly flammable Bakken crude through Washington state and elsewhere. She also applauded a new U.S. Department of Transportation rule requiring railroads to disclose more information to first responders about trains carrying crude oil.
During a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx announced a new emergency order requiring railroads to identify routes on which trains hauling more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude are traveling and to notify state emergency responders so they can coordinate with affected communities to prepare for potential accidents. USDOT also issued a non-binding "safety advisory" urging shippers hauling crude to use tank cars with the "highest level of integrity available."
The rail industry reached a separate agreement on rail operations in February with USDOT to improve crude-by-rail safety. But the agreement is voluntary, so violators could not be fined or otherwise held accountable under federal law.
"If we know that we want to get rid of these carriers that we don't think are a safe transport vehicle for this Bakken oil, then we should come up with a date in certainty," Cantwell said to Foxx during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. "Making it voluntary isn't going far enough."
Wednesday's hearing followed an April 24 accident in which several oil cars derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Virginia. A derailment in Quebec in July 2013 killed 47 people.
Rail car concerns center primarily on the "DOT-111," an older-model tank car that poses a higher safety risk than newer cars, whose hulls are less likely to puncture in the case of a derailment. About 80,000 of these older, less safe cars currently are in use.
"As you can see the train route goes through every major city in the Northwest," Cantwell said. "All across my state, people are having this debate in their local communities. What's happening is an explosion of product through this area and not the right response and safety regulations. So, we are urging a mandatory date for getting rid of these DOT-111 cars and a mandatory rule on safety. We just think it's too much for people to ignore the voluntary agreement without with so many people at risk as we saw in Canada and as we saw in Lynchburg, and as we saw in other areas."
Last week, USDOT submitted new proposed standards for tank cars for review with the Office of Management and Budget. During the hearing, Foxx said he intended to have the new rules finalized by the end of the year. But development of the new standards already is a year behind schedule.
Foxx said the voluntary measures were intended as interim steps until a new rule was finalized. "We're working as hard and fast as we can to get that done. We know that certainty matters and it is because communities across America have had concerns about this we issued the emergency order, which is binding on the industry to notify communities what is moving through their communities when it comes to this oil," he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has expressed concern about the DOT-111 tank car since 1991 and deemed them an unacceptable risk to public safety.
A lack of pipelines running east to west in Northern states means that crude shipments will continue mostly by rail. Washington state is the fifth-largest refining state in the U.S. and a destination for increasing quantities of crude-by-rail from North Dakota shale fields. Trains haul Bakken crude daily through Washington state -- passing through Spokane, Vancouver, Seattle and other cities. Recent high-profile rail accidents in North America have prompted Washington state lawmakers to propose legislation and city councils in Seattle, Spokane and Bellingham to pass resolutions calling for stronger federal oversight.
Railroads own less than one percent of railcars themselves. In many cases, they are owned by leasing companies or oil shippers. Prentiss Searles, testifying during an April committee hearing on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute, told Cantwell that the oil industry plans to replace 40 percent of the DOT-111 fleet with stronger cars by the end of 2014, and 60 percent by the end of 2015.
In April, Cantwell and Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) led a letter from 16 senators calling on the Senate Appropriations Committee to support new investment in a Safe Transportation of Energy Products Fund to address existing and emerging issues related to the transportation of Bakken crude and other energy products. President Barack Obama proposed the fund this year in his fiscal year 2015 budget request for USDOT. The fund could be used to address issues related to the transportation of Bakken crude such as more expeditious rulemakings, technical studies, increased rail and energy product inspections, safety mitigation and response planning, first responder training, and community outreach.