NTSB calls for audits and safer routes for crude trains
By Kyle Potter
The NTSB on Thursday issued three safety recommendations to the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration, the two primary federal agencies tasked with overseeing U.S. railroads:
* Regulators should consider rerouting trains carrying hazardous materials like crude oil and ethanol to avoid “populated and other sensitive areas.
* The FRA and PHMSA should create an audit program to ensure rail carriers have adequate emergency response capabilities to handle a crash or spill.
* Another audit program should be developed to ensure shippers have properly classified the hazardous materials on board.
The NTSB is an independent agency charged with investigating transportation accidents and makes safety recommendations but does not create policy. It released Thursday’s recommendations with its Canadian counterpoint, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
“The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said in a news release. “While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm.”
As oil production has boomed in western North Dakota, companies have turned to the railroads as their primary mode of moving oil. Crude-by-rail shipments out of the Williston Basin, home to the Bakken oilfields, have increased from virtually zero in 2008 to almost 700,000 barrels per day last year.
The NTSB also repeated its previous safety warnings about the DOT-111 tank cars, which were in use in Casselton and in the explosive wreck last summer in Quebec, where 47 people died. After a train hauling ethanol in those cars derailed outside of Rockford, Ill., in 2009, the NTSB concluded in its investigation that the DOT-111 car “can almost always be expected to breach in derailments that involve pileups or multiple car-to-car impacts.”
All but two of the 20 tank cars that ran off the tracks punctured after striking another derailed train in Casselton on Dec. 30, according to the NTSB. The cause of that derailment is under investigation.
After the 2009 accident in Illinois, the NTSB pushed for DOT-111s to be strengthened with thicker shells and metal shields at their front ends to protect against punctures, plus other improvements. Those suggestions, the NTSB noted in its recommendations Thursday, are still held up in a lengthy PHMSA rulemaking process that began more than a year ago.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., in an interview, called the NTSB’s suggestions “common-sense recommendations that should be followed.” He noted the NTSB’s recommendations fall in line with voluntary steps railroad and shipping companies agreed to take last week.
The American Association of Railroads, which represents major freight rail companies such as BNSF, echoed Hoeven’s sentiment, and said in a statement that they are in “full agreement with the safety board’s recommendations.”