Fast track on rules: N.D. congressional delegation working to get tougher tank car regulations
FARGO — North Dakota’s congressional delegation told local officials Saturday they’re working to fast-track tougher regulations on oil tank cars while also pushing for a closer look at all aspects of rail safety in light of the derailment and explosion of a train hauling Bakken crude last month near Casselton, N.D.
The biggest obstacle to enacting new regulations for tank cars is the slow pace of the federal bureaucracy, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said after he and other officials met at Fargo’s City Hall.
“It’s been over two years since they started that rule-making on those tanker cars, and now they’re telling us it’s probably a year away, close to a year away, before they can finalize it,” Cramer said.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said that’s too long to wait.
“The regulators need to work with the industry — both the shippers and the railroads — to provide regulatory certainty, so that they can get the newer, safer cars out there as expeditiously as possible,” he said.
At issue are the older DOT-111 tank cars, the type of car involved in the crash near Casselton. These cars, which carry flammable substances like crude oil and ethanol, have an inadequate design and are more vulnerable to being breached in a derailment than newer versions, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The new regulations would require shippers that own the DOT-111 cars, including oil companies and railcar leasing firms, to cover the cost of retrofitting or replacing them, Hoeven said.
The NTSB is investigating the Dec. 30 crash, which occurred on BNSF tracks near Casselton, but no cause has been determined.
In a preliminary report, the NTSB said a westbound soybean train derailed and ended up on the adjacent track. An eastbound train hauling crude oil struck the derailed soybean car, knocking 20 oil-carrying tank cars off the tracks. Eighteen of those tank cars were punctured, spilling more than 400,000 gallons of oil, the report said.
No one was injured in the crash or the oil-fueled explosions that followed. Concerns about toxic smoke led to a voluntary evacuation of Casselton.
Days after the crash, federal officials issued a safety alert warning that the light, sweet Bakken crude may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is testing the volatility of Bakken crude and will share those results with industry officials.
Heitkamp acknowledged that the issues surrounding the DOT-111 cars and the explosiveness of Bakken crude have garnered much attention, but she emphasized the need for a holistic approach to rail safety.
“If we just focus on those (two issues), I think that we miss an opportunity to improve public safety,” she said.
Heitkamp stressed that avoiding derailments is the first step to improving safety.
“We have to prevent the accident to begin with,” she said.
Many officials praised Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney and other first responders for how they handled the crash near Casselton. Gov. Jack Dalrymple,R-N.D., said he’s planning a tabletop exercise with emergency managers that would deal with the possibility of a similar derailment in a densely populated area.
Hoeven said the delegation’s recent discussions of rail safety with federal regulators, railroad CEOs and oil company representatives have touched on the rerouting of trains, train speeds, proper loading of crude oil and inspections.
“We need more inspectors on rail, and we need more inspectors on the shipping,” he said, adding that more funding is needed to make that happen.
Cramer said he has not confronted any resistance from industry leaders on new rail safety regulations.
“There’s nobody in the supply chain that benefits from a derailment and an explosion,” he said. “So there’s no incentive built into the system to do anything other than the absolute best you can do.”
Roger Nober, an executive vice president at BNSF, told officials at the meeting that the railroad has been making record investments to strengthen its infrastructure and, in turn, improve safety. Nober also said BNSF supports phasing out the DOT-111 cars.
“We have been strong advocates for safer tank cars and would like to see that happen as quickly as possible,” he said.
Despite BNSF’s pledge to remain committed to safety, some in the room, including Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell, were skeptical.
“My town, we don’t trust you guys anymore, and it’s going to take a while to get that back,” he said.