DOT-111 rail cars

Wed, 2014-05-28 15:39Justin Mikulka
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Interactive Map and Report on Oil-By-Rail, "Booming Bomb Train Industry"

A new report and website released today by Oil Change International provides a comprehensive overview of the current oil-by-rail industry in North America and it isn’t a pretty picture.

The report and interactive map of the “booming bomb train industry” capture the alarming scope of this very recent development.  As the report points out, 70 times as much oil was moved by rail in 2014 as there was in 2005. That rapid expansion is continuing, placing more North American communities at risk.  

This analysis shows just how out of control the oil industry is in North America today. Regulators are unable to keep up with the industry’s expansion-at-any-cost mentality, and public safety is playing second fiddle to industry profits,” said Lorne Stockman, Research Director of Oil Change International and author of the report.

According to the report, Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude By Rail in North America, approximately one million barrels of oil per day are moved on 135 trains of 100 cars or more each day in America.  If all of the currently planned development of oil-by-rail facilities occurs, the full capacity to move oil would be five times that amount.  

This is what the All of the Above Energy Strategy looks like – a runaway train headed straight for North American communities,” Stockman said.

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This massive investment by the oil and rail industries to expand their capacity to move oil by rail is one of the main reasons that improving oil-by-rail safety is unlikely when it comes to the unsafe DOT-111 tank cars.  These cars currently make up approximately 70% of the oil-by-rail tank car fleet and there is currently a two to three year waiting list for companies wanting new tank cars.  

Wed, 2014-04-30 05:00Justin Mikulka
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How This U.S. Rail Safety Measure Has Been Delayed for 44 Years … And Counting

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman

On August 20, 1969, two Penn Central commuter trains collided head-on near Darien, Conn.  Four people were killed and 43 were injured. The crash led the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to recommend that railroads implement new safety technology called positive train control — a system for monitoring and controlling train movements to increase safety.

The NTSB first recommended positive train control in 1970. In 2008, after another fatal train collision that killed 25 people, Congress finally passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act, which mandated positive train control be implemented by the railroad industry by the end of 2015. 

Fast-forward another six years to multiple congressional hearings in recent months, during which the railroads have informed Congress that positive train control simply won’t be implemented by the end of 2015. It’s been 44 years since the NTSB first recommended positive train control to improve rail safety in the U.S. and it is still not being used. 

Fri, 2014-03-14 13:29Justin Mikulka
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Why Nothing Will Happen On Oil by Rail Safety

In the past month, there have been numerous public relations efforts suggesting that much is being done to improve oil by rail safety. Unfortunately, it seems these efforts will not involve much more than press releases and hollow promises, as regulators have made no meaningful changes to a broken and ineffective regulatory system.  

That approach, combined with the realities of the rail tank car industry, basically ensure that oil will be transported in the unsafe DOT-111 tank cars for many years to come, despite testimony at a recent congressional hearing from Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Sumwalt testified that, “multiple recent serious and fatal accidents reflect substantial shortcomings in tank car design that create an unacceptable public risk.”  

Unacceptable to the public, but apparently perfectly acceptable to the industry.

Thu, 2014-02-27 12:38Justin Mikulka
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Bureaucrat Ducks Vital Question on Flawed DOT-111 Tank Cars at Oil By Rail Safety Hearing

On Wednesday February 26th, the long-awaited congressional hearing on oil-by-rail safety finally occurred. The main portion of the hearing featured representatives from the relevant government agencies as well as industry, such as the American Petroleum Institute’s President and CEO, Jack Gerard.  

For those following crude-by-rail safety, there are several pressing issues, but the one question everyone wants to know the answer to is when will the government stop allowing the inferior and unsafe DOT-111 tank cars to be used to ship crude oil?  

At the hearing, Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB
testified that “multiple recent serious and fatal accidents reflect substantial shortcomings in tank car design that create an unacceptable public risk.”

Not much of substance was covered in the hours-long hearing but there was one exchange between Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Cynthia Quarterman, the Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), that shed light on where this all stands.  

Congressman DeFazio asked the question about the DOT-111s several times — and Administrator Quarterman refused to answer several times. The video below highlights the heated exchange which ends with Congressman Defazio cutting off Adminstrator Quarterman mid-sentence as it is clear she is not going to answer, thus highlighting the extent of the problem.  



The one official who can actually make something happen when it comes to improving rail car safety refuses to answer questions on when that might get done, despite the fact that the flaws in the existing DOT-111 tank cars have been known for over a decade and members of congress have been requesting this hearing for over six months. 

Tue, 2014-02-25 11:37Justin Mikulka
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Past Time to Close Loophole That Exempts Oil by Rail Companies from Spill Response Planning

In 2013, with the rapid expansion in the use of rail to transport crude oil, we learned that there was a huge increase in the the amount of oil spilled as a result of rail incidents.  

Just two weeks ago, a train
derailed near Pittsburg and spilled 4,000 gallons.  More than 1.15 million gallons of crude spilled from rail cars in 2013.  And this does not include the 1.6 million gallons that spilled in July of 2013 in Lac-Megantic in Canada.   

To put this in perspective, the 2010 Marshall Michigan Pipeline spill — currently the largest and most costly spill on land in US history according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) — only spilled 843,000 gallons.

These rolling unit trains of crude oil can be carrying over three million gallons of crude oil at one time. The train that derailed and exploded in Aliceville, Alabama in November 2013, was
carrying 2.7 million gallons of Bakken crude oil.  

However, as noted in the recent NTSB recommendations, thanks to a loophole in regulations set up in 1996, the companies transporting this oil by rail are exempt from having comprehensive spill response plans.  According to the January 23, 2014 Safety Recommendation from the NTSB (link to PDF):

oil spill response planning requirements for rail transportation of oil/petroleum products are practically nonexistent compared with other modes of transportation.”

Estimates are that 90% of the oil produced in the Bakken fields in 2014 will be transported by rail. This is up from a rate of 63% in September of 2013.  And as the NTSB notes, current regulations do not require the companies moving this crude to have comprehensive spill response plans despite the amounts of crude oil they are moving.

Fri, 2014-02-14 05:00Justin Mikulka
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Why Nothing Is Being Done to Improve Oil by Rail Safety

Since the oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic in July of 2013, we have learned that there are some obvious safety issues that need to be addressed regarding transportation of crude oil by rail. The first is that the majority of the rail cars transporting this oil are DOT-111’s which have been deemed unsafe due to their tendency to rupture in accidents. The second is that Bakken crude oil can be explosive and isn’t being properly classified for transport.  

Since Lac-Megantic we have heard many calls for increased rail safety. In August of 2013, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wrote a letter to the Federal Railway Adminstration (FRA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Adminstration (PHMSA) requesting that the agency begin a phase out of the DOT-111 rail cars. Senator Schumer also referenced a March 2012 letter written by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Deborah Hersman requesting safety upgrades to existing DOT-111 rail cars.

On January 15th, 2014, Representative Corrinne Brown (D-FL) wrote a letter to Jeff Denham (R-CA), who is Chairman of the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Wastes Congressional Subcommittee, requesting a hearing be held regarding rail safety.  In her letter she mentions that several members of the Subcommittee have already written letters requesting a hearing on rail safety as far back as August 2013.  Brown wrote:

Again, we urge the subcommittee to hold a hearing immediately on rail safety.  We believe the hearing should, at a minimum, include representatives from the NTSB, FRA, PHMSA, the rail industry, and rail labor.  Thank you in advance for consideration of this request.”

Additionally, there are concerned elected officials across the country who have requested action on rail safety. Even Rahm Emanuel, former White House Chief of Staff and current Mayor of Chicago has joined the chorus of people requesting improved rail safety.

Last week, the PHMSA released the first results regarding the testing of Bakken Crude. This testing began in November 2013 and is one of the few changes that have been made since the explosion in Lac-Megantic. The results were not good as over 50% of the samples taken were found to be improperly classified. The offenders paid fines ranging from $12,000 to $51,530.

Beginning in August to Nov. 1, 2013, PHMSA inspectors tested samples from various points along the crude oil transportation chain: from cargo tanks that deliver crude oil to rail loading facilities, from storage tanks at the facilities, and from the pipeline connecting the storage tank to the railcar that would move the crude across the country,” said DOT. “Based on the test results, 11 of the 18 samples taken from cargo tanks delivering crude oil to the rail loading facilities were not assigned to the correct Packing Group.”

So there is ample evidence that the DOT-111 cars are unsafe and prone to spills in crashes and that Bakken Crude is being misclassified by oil companies to make it appear as less of a risk than it actually is to the public. And as trains continued to explode over the past six months, we have had repeated requests by lawmakers to do something about this.

So why has nothing happened?  You probably already know that answer, but here are the details.

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