Off the Rails: A week of fiery, crude-filled train derailments in February had reignited the focus on oil transportation safety and ongoing debate about the wisdom of shipping volatile Bakken crude by rail.
The two back-to-back derailments were part of a long line of explosive incidents in the United States and Canada. The increasing number of incidents—at least 24 since July 2013—has been driven by more trains carrying more crude by rail since advances in technology allowed oil manufacturers to tap into North Dakota’s Bakken oil formation. Since 2008, the number of tank cars carrying oil has shot up from about 9,500 to 400,000 according to the Association of American Railroads.
At the time of the February derailments, the U.S. Transportation Department was reviewing proposed rules that would create safer tanker standards and eliminate the problem of largely voluntary safety efforts and emergency orders open to railroad company interpretation.
All Aboard?: The U.S. Department of Transportation and Transport Canada issued a joint final rule for strengthening the safety of flammable liquids being transported by rail on May 1. The rule addressed tanker safety and braking standards, and introduced new protocols for routing and speed restrictions when transporting flammable liquids. By May 5, however, the Wall Street Journal reported that rail industry officials would challenge the rule, especially a portion that requires electronic pneumatic brakes to be installed by 2021. Cars without the new brakes would be limited to speeds of 30 miles per hour. Industry officials say the brake technology is too expensive and not likely to make rail transport any safer.
As if to punctuate the debate, yet another crude train exploded near Hiemdal, North Dakota the following day, prompting the evacuation of the 20-person town and sullying nearby wetlands. Early investigations into the accident point to a possible wheel defect as the cause.
“The oil train rules released by the administration on Friday are obsolete before the ink is even dry,” Todd Paglia, executive director of ForestEthics, told the Los Angeles Times on May 6. “The new rules would not have prevented any of the first four fiery accidents in February and March, and they likely would not have prevented this one either.”
Down the Tracks: In addition to the backlash from industry officials and safety advocates, the new rule has come under scrutiny from federal and state lawmakers who say it makes it too difficult for the public to determine oil train routes and load amounts.
Railroads no longer need to notify state authorities of oil train shipments and instead must provide a company point of contact to answer questions, according to the Minnesota Star Tribune. Legislators are concerned that the reporting change would make it onerous for first responders, local officials, and residents to get information they might need in case of derailments.
The rail industry will challenge the new rule in court, while a group of U.S senators have called on the Department of Transportation to issue an emergency ruling addressing the notification issues.