NTSB to hold safety forum on crude oil, ethanol shipments by rail

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 7, 2014 

The National Transportation Safety Board will hold a two-day public forum next month on the safety of moving crude oil and ethanol by rail, the agency said Thursday.

The NTSB has been warning for years that a common type of railroad tank car, known as the DOT-111, was not suitable for transporting flammable liquids and cited its tendency to puncture or rupture easily in derailments.

Federal regulators had known for more than two decades about the car’s shortcomings when a train loaded with crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July, killing 47 people and destroying the center of town.

Two months after the derailment, the Department of Transportation began the process of gathering public comment for revised regulations for tank car standards.

“The improvements are long overdue,” testified Christopher Hart, the NTSB vice chairman, in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Thursday on rail safety.

Hart announced the NTSB forum, which will take place in Washington on April 22-23.

The railroad industry supports the NTSB recommendations on the DOT-111 cars.

“Our recommendation is to not use them for flammable liquids,” testified Edward Hamberger, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s leading advocacy group in Washington.

Hamberger said that tank cars in crude oil service should have full-height head shields to protect each end of the car from puncture, as well as thicker shells, thermal insulation, stronger protection for top and bottom fittings and high-capacity pressure relief valves.

But railroads don’t own most tank cars, so the expense of upgrading the fleet falls on the companies that own and lease them. And their proposed fixes don’t go as far as what the NTSB or the rail industry have called for, and won’t be finished as quickly.

For example, the petroleum industry and tank car manufacturers want to continue to use tank cars built to a higher standard the industry adopted voluntarily in 2011. Tank car manufacturers want such cars, called CPC-1232, exempted from new requirements.

However, the NTSB, in written testimony, said that it isn’t convinced that the modified cars offer significant safety improvements.

Until DOT produces a final rule on tank cars, a process that could take another year, tank car manufacturers will likely continue to adhere to the CPC-1232 standard.

Senators pressed regulators to say when the new standard would be final and when the existing DOT-111 fleet would be phased out of crude oil service. North Dakota has become the country’s No. 2 oil producer behind Texas, and more than 70 percent of the state’s crude moves by rail.

“We’ve been moving as fast as we possibly can,” testified Cynthia Quarterman, the head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration at DOT.

Email: ctate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

 

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