Federal Officials Fear 'Major Loss of Life' in Oil-by-Rail Accidents

TAFT, CA - JULY 21:  An oil rig south of town extracts crude on July 21, 2008 in Taft, California. Hemmed in by the richest oil fields in California, the oil town of 6,700 with a stagnated economy and little room to expand has hatched an ambitious plan to annex vast expanses of land reaching eastward to Interstate 5, 18 miles away, and take over various poor unincorporated communities to triple its population to around 20,000. With the price as light sweet crude at record high prices, Chevron and other companies are scrambling to drill new wells and reopen old wells once considered unprofitable. The renewed profits for oil men of Kern County, where more than 75 percent of all the oil produced in California flows, do not directly translate increased revenue for Taft. The Taft town council wants to cash in on the new oil boom with increased tax revenues from a NASCAR track and future developments near the freeway.  In an earlier oil boom era, Taft was the site of the 1910 Lakeside Gusher, the biggest oil gusher ever seen in the US, which destroyed the derrick and sent 100,000 barrels a day into a lake of crude.  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images) (National Journal)

The National Transportation Safety Board is proposing new restrictions and safeguards on the growing transport of crude oil by rail, recommendations that follow a derailment that killed 47 people in Canada last year as well as other accidents.

"The NTSB is concerned that major loss of life, property damage, and environmental consequences can occur when large volumes of crude oil or other flammable liquids are transported on a single train involved in an accident, as seen in the Lac Megantic, Quebec, accident, as well as several accidents the NTSB has investigated in the U.S.," the agency, part of the Transportation Department, said Thursday.

The NTSB is calling on a pair of sister agencies — the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration — to toughen oversight in several ways.

One recommendation would require more planning by railroads to avoid populated and other sensitive areas.

A second calls for an audit program to ensure railways carrying petroleum products have "adequate response capabilities to address worst-case discharges" of all of the product carried on a train, the NTSB said.

"The third recommendation is to audit shippers and rail carriers to ensure that they are properly classifying hazardous materials in transportation and that they have adequate safety and security plans in place," the agency said.

Click here and here for more on the recommendations by the NTSB, which is an independent federal agency tasked with investigating transportation accidents.

The NTSB's action adds to pressure on regulators following a string of crude-by-rail accidents, including a late-December derailment and inferno in North Dakota.

The Transportation Department is also crafting new safety standards for tank cars, but several lawmakers fear that it's moving too slowly. The amount of crude oil being shipped by rail is soaring alongside the U.S. oil production boom.

Shipment of crude oil by rail cars is more than 400 percent higher than it was nine years ago, according to rail-industry data the NTSB highlighted Thursday.

"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," said NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman in a statement Thursday.