In the wake of several accidents involving crude oil from the Bakken Shale, environmental groups have filed a petition asking the head of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to issue an emergency order banning the use of older railcars to transport oil from the play.

On Tuesday, attorneys for Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law organization, filed a 26-page petition asking DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx to issue an emergency order prohibiting the shipment of Bakken crude in DOT Specification 111 (DOT-111) railcars. Earthjustice filed the petition on behalf of two environmental organizations, the Sierra Club and ForestEthics.

“DOT has found that the dramatic increase in the shipment of highly flammable Bakken crude oil in unit trains has created emergency unsafe conditions that pose an imminent hazard to life, health, property, and the environment,” the petition said. “The secretary has issued emergency orders addressing certain operational and emergency response issues, but the actions taken by the DOT to date leave a gaping hole. Specifically, DOT has yet to restrict the shipment of volatile crude oil in the unsafe DOT-111 tank cars.

“This omission is inexcusable given the long string of findings by the National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] that the legacy DOT-111 tank cars are extremely vulnerable to puncture, spilling oil, and precipitating explosions and fires in train accidents.”

DOT has been investigating a series of train derailments involving rail cars containing Bakken crude. The investigation is part of DOT’s Operation Classification, also known as the “Bakken Blitz,” (see Shale Daily, Feb. 26).

Last February, DOT issued an emergency order requiring rail carriers to test crude oil before transport, and to classify crude as a hazardous material. Two months later, DOT issued a second emergency order advising against the use of older, more vulnerable railcars — including the DOT-111 — for the shipment of Bakken crude (see Shale Daily, May 7).

In July 2013, an unattended freight train transporting Bakken crude rolled downhill, derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 42 people (see Shale Daily,July 9, 2013).

Six months later, a 90-car crude oil train loaded with Bakken crude heading to a refinery in Florida derailed in a rural area near Aliceville, AL. According to DOT, more than 20 cars derailed and at least 11 ignited, causing an explosion and fire. Although no one was injured in the incident, an undetermined amount of crude fouled a wetlands area, causing an estimated $3.9 million in damage.

On Dec. 30, 2013, a BNSF train carrying Bakken crude hit a grain train traveling in the opposite direction that had derailed earlier near Casselton, ND. The crash caused 21 cars carrying crude to derail, 18 of which subsequently ruptured and exploded (see Shale Daily, Dec. 31, 2013). There were no injuries, but about 1,400 were evacuated. Damage was estimated at $8 million.

Nine days after the derailment near Casselton, several cars of a Canadian National Railway (CN) train, including some loaded with crude oil and propane, derailed and caught fire near Plaster Rock, in the Canadian province of New Brunswick (see Shale Daily, Jan. 8).

“The spate of disasters is not letting up,” the petition said.

Last May, two DOT agencies — the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) — issued a safety advisory strongly urging those shipping or offering Bakken crude to use tank car designs with the highest level of integrity available in their fleets, and to avoid using the DOT-111 railcars.

In a report also released in May, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) said Bakken crude isn’t significantly more dangerous than crude from other plays to transport by rail and poses a lower transport risk than other flammable liquids (see Shale Daily, May 15). But AFPM, which represents nearly all of the petroleum refiners and petrochemical manufacturers in the United States, conceded that Bakken crude may contain higher amounts of dissolved flammable gases compared to heavier crudes.

Last month, the U.S. State Department said there could be a four-fold increase in the estimated number of deaths and injuries from rail accidents over a 10-year period if the Keystone XL pipeline isn’t built (see Shale Daily, June 9). The pipeline would carry heavy crude from the Canadian oilsands from Morgan, MT, to Steele City, NE (see Shale Daily, May 7, 2012).

North Dakota energy officials reported Monday that the amount of Bakken crude being shipped out of the play by rail is declining (see Shale Daily, July 16). According to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, 59% of crude oil produced in the Bakken was transported out of the play in May, the most recent month where figures were available; the peak was once more than 70%.