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Senate Crude-by-Rail Bill Would Ban Some Cars Immediately

Four Senate Democrats are backing legislation to establish more stringent safety requirements for trains hauling "volatile crude oil," including the immediate ban of rail car types suspected to be particularly vulnerable in accidents.

The Crude-By-Rail Safety Act of 2015 would require that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) draft regulations to mitigate the volatility of gases in crude oil shipped via tank car and immediately halt the use of older-model tank cars that have been shown to be at high risk for puncturing and catching fire in derailments.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy is researching ways to control the volatility of highly flammable crude oil and expects to have the project completed this fall (see related story).

The legislation was introduced by U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

"Every new derailment increases the urgency with which we need to act," said Cantwell, ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "Communities in Washington state and across the nation see hundreds of these oil tank cars pass through each week. This legislation will help reduce the risk of explosion in accidents, take unsafe tank cars off the tracks, and ensure first responders have the equipment they need. We can't afford to wait for ten accidents per year, as estimated by the Department of Transportation."

The legislation would:

  • Require PHMSA standards for volatility of gases in crude oil hauled by rail;
  • Immediately ban the use of tank cars shown to be unsafe for shipping crude oil. Those models include DOT-111s and unjacketed CPC-1232s;
  • Require new tank car design standards that include 9/16th-inch shells, thermal protection, pressure-relief valves and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes;
  • Increase fines on railroads that violate hazardous materials laws and establish new fines for railroads and energy companies that don't comply with safety laws;
  • Authorize funding for first responder training, equipment and emergency preparedness. Also would authorize funding for increased rail inspections and energy product testing;
  • Require comprehensive oil spill response plans for trains carrying oil, petroleum and other hazardous products;
  • Mandate railroads establish a confidential "close call" reporting system for employees to anonymously report problems; and
  • Require railroads to disclose crude-by-rail movements to state emergency response commissions and local emergency planning committees along hazardous materials rail routes.

As introduced, the bill would impose fines for non-compliance of not more than $500,000 or not more than $1 million per violation depending upon the type of violation.

The legislation follows four fiery derailments involving oil trains since early February (see Shale Daily, March 6Feb. 20Feb. 17). No injuries were reported in those accidents, but a July 2013 derailment in downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, resulted in 47 deaths (see Shale Daily, Aug. 20, 2014). The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is pushing for phase-out of DOT-111 rail cars used to transport crude oil (see Shale DailyMarch 19).

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that an average of 10 derailments will occur annually over the next 20 years as crude-by-rail shipments grow, the senators said. "As more crude oil is moved by train, we're seeing a surge in derailments and explosions. Until we deploy safer tank cars and stronger safety rules, countless communities across the country face the risk of a devastating accident," Feinstein said.

Five years ago, railroads hauled almost no crude oil. Now, more than 1.1 million b/d of crude -- with more expected -- moves by rail, largely originating in the Midwest, according to the senators.

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