Two Groups Call For Additional Federal Rule On Oil Trains

Dec 2, 2014

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An environmental group from the Hudson Valley and a national conservation group have petitioned the Obama administration to impose additional rules concerning crude oil transport by rail.

Amid the rise in crude oil transport via rail, two non-profit groups say the public and the environment need to be better protected from potential derailments and accidents. As such, Riverkeeper and the Center for Biological Diversity have filed a petition to reduce the length and weight of trains hauling oil and other hazardous liquids. Sean Dixon is a staff attorney with Ossining-based Riverkeeper.

“Unfortunately, the proposed rules issued by PHMSA, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, in August, despite recognizing that these long, heavy trains are difficult to control, they’re unwieldy, their weight actually wears down welding on the rails, in the trains themselves, puts extra wear and tear on breaking, requires more maintenance more regularly for locomotives, and makes these long, heavy trains difficult to stop or even slow down in the event of an emergency breaking, or going into or out of any of these rail yards, they don’t ever address the idea of potentially limiting the length or the weight of the trains,” says Dixon. “So that’s why we threw out this petition is to get that conversation going and to get it going now.”

In an e-mailed statement to WAMC, a spokesman says PHMSA received the groups’ petition for rulemaking to limit the number of rail tank cars and total weight of crude oil trains, and will consider it in future rulemaking. Meanwhile, the comment period recently closed for proposed PHMSA rulemaking on several crude oil by rail safety issues. Dixon points to the July 2013 oil train tragedy in Quebec, along with other oil train accidents, as evidence for the need to limit length and weight.

“And not only does it get more problematic and more dangerous with respect to the kinetic energy of these problems as you go up, it gets, it’s something that’s controllable if we were to look at limiting the length and the weight of these trains,” Dixon says.

He also says the petition calls for oil trains to be limited to 4,000 tons, a weight he says the Association of American Railroads has determined to be a “no problem” train, meaning there would be significantly less risk of derailment. This would limit oil trains to 30 cars.  Here’s AAR Spokesman Ed Greenberg.

“The AAR has concerns with the petition as the petitioners misrepresented existing AAR research in asserting that shorter and lighter trains would be beneficial,” says Greenberg. “And we feel it is a submission that is faulty and all it would do would add congestion to the country’s rail network for both freight and passenger service.”

The AAR research was included in a Federal Railroad Administration report to Congress, which refers to a “no problem” train as one where no special consideration needs to be given to train makeup. Dixon admits the issue of crude oil by rail is complicated – tank car design, routes, classification of what goes into the transported materials at the source, and safety planning.

“In retrospect, it’s something that really should have been started to be looked at five, six years ago when this was an emerging industry,” says Dixon. “So right now there’s just so many balls in the air and trying to figure out how to juggle them all in the safest possible way at the quickest possible speed is something that we’re going to have to deal with together, everybody.”

AAR’s Greenberg agrees the issue is complex.

“What this submission clearly demonstrates is that this is a complex issue and it is important for careful review and discussion to take place,” says Greenberg.

Dixon and other environmentalists contend that without regulations that help prevent derailments, oil trains will continue to threaten communities, drinking water supplies and wildlife.