BISMARCK - Amid declining shipments, the rail industry is phasing out "less-safe" tank cars carrying crude oil ahead of rapidly approaching deadlines to do so.
The federally mandated deadlines to remove the DOT-111 tank cars from oil service came after several high-profile derailments involving Bakken crude. That included the deadly Lac-Megantic, Quebec, disaster in 2013 and the explosion near Casselton, N.D., later that year.
As of Jan. 1, DOT-111 cars without a protective steel layer known as a jacket can no longer carry crude oil. Those cars with the jacket must be phased out two months later.
A U.S. Department of Transportation report sent to Congress last month shows the number of those cars carrying crude oil has dropped dramatically over the past few years. In 2013, 14,337 of them carried crude oil, which sank to 366 last year.
That shift has been aided by a steep decline in Williston Basin rail exports over the past few years. A rush of activity in western North Dakota forced oil onto the tracks, but pipelines are now the dominant form of oil transportation, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.
"The first phase, in terms of removing the DOT-111s ... that's moving along very nicely," said John Byrne, vice chairman of the Railway Supply Institute's Committee on Tank Cars. "Because there's a surplus of cars available to take them out of service and replace them with compliant cars."
Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the Dakota Access Pipeline helped push oil off the tracks when it went online earlier this year. But rail shipments across the country have been declining since 2014, according to the Association of American Railroads.
The latest BNSF Railway Co. report provided by the state Department of Emergency Services, dated September, shows as many as three oil trains moved through Cass County in one week, down from a high of 56 first reached in 2014.
Pointing to increased training for first responders, DES Hazardous Chemical Officer Jeff Thompson said they're "more comfortable with the situation than we were before." But that doesn't mean they've let their guard down.
"There's always the fear that (it) happens in the middle of a town. And that goes with all train derailments, not just crude oil," he said.
About 476,000 gallons of oil spilled near Casselton in late December 2013 after an oil train slammed into a derailed grain car, sparking a fireball over the snowy landscape. Residents evacuated, but there were no deaths or serious injuries, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
Oil spilled from 18 of the derailed DOT-111 cars in that incident, according to the NTSB, which "long had concerns" about the "less-safe" tank cars because they're not puncture resistant, have relatively thin shells and lack thermal protection.
In announcing the agency's findings on the Casselton derailment in February, the NTSB's then-Chairman Christopher Hart said "progress toward removing or retrofitting DOT-111s has been too slow." Thousands of those cars are still being used to carry ethanol and other flammable liquids, which have later phase-out dates, according to the transportation department's report.
By 2029, flammable liquids can only be carried in DOT-117s, which have thicker shells and insulating material, Byrne said. The new and retrofitted versions of those cars now represent 9 percent of the fleet carrying Class 3 flammable liquids, which includes crude oil and ethanol, according the transportation department report.
"There's been a huge improvement in the overall safety of the cars moving crude today versus what we were looking at in 2013, 2014," Byrne said.