Oil-Train Crashes Spur Safety Scrutiny

Rail-safety advocates and members of Congress are calling for stricter tank-car safety standards in the wake of a major oil-by-rail accident this week, an appeal that took on new urgency Thursday with the release of a federal advisory that oil from North Dakota's Bakken formation may be more flammable than other types of crude.

A train carrying crude oil from the Bakken ran off the rails near Casselton, N.D., on Monday, leading to a voluntary evacuation of nearby residents. The accident occurred when freight cars carrying crude oil struck a train that had derailed earlier in the day. No injuries were reported but the crash sparked an inferno and reignited concerns over the potential dangers of shipping oil by rail.

The event is the latest in a series of accidents involving rail transport of crude in recent months and has spurred a renewed push for oversight and regulation of rail cars traveling to and from oil-rich states.

"We believe the federal government needs to act to improve standards for the design and construction of tank cars," said Patti Reilly of the Association of American Railroads, a trade group for major North American freight railroads. "It is our hope that they step up and demand the safest tank car possible both for new construction and for retrofitting of the existing fleet."

With domestic oil-production surging due to advances in drilling techniques, oil-by-rail shipments have expanded exponentially. This has caused proponents of stricter rail-safety standards to step up efforts to spur reform. Debate continues, however, over which branch of government should take the lead in tightening standards.

A few months after a train carrying North Dakota crude derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July, the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to strengthen regulations for rail transport of hazardous materials. And on Thursday, PHMSA circulated a safety alert that Bakken crude may be more likely than other varieties of crude to ignite in the event of a rail crash.

"Rail safety is a national priority, and we have been aggressively taking action on multiple fronts to mitigate risks," said Jeannie Shiffer, a Transportation Department spokeswoman. "[As the] rulemaking moves forward, we will continue taking action whenever necessary to ensure the safe transportation of hazardous materials by rail."

But federal regulatory reform will take a long time to crystallize, and lawmakers are looking to fill the void.

"Right now, we have slow-moving federal bureaucracy and major pushback from private investors who own the rail cars, and both those things add up to a need for congressional action," Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, said in an interview Thursday. "First, Congress should mandate that within a certain period of time you can't use a DOT-111 car [commonly used to transport crude oil] that hasn't been retrofitted, and that would be a short-term solution while we decide on a new, better design for these cars; and then that new design would be mandated along with a phaseout of the old cars."

DeFazio acknowledged a difficult road ahead, though. "I don't think Congress has the wherewithal to mandate the new design, but I certainly intend to ask for hearings on this issue," he said. "That's all I can do."

On the other side of Capitol Hill, a spokesman for the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee said Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is monitoring the issue.

"The series of recent derailments and serious accidents involving crude oil is alarming and demands closer scrutiny," the spokesman said. "Regardless of how crude is shipped, Senator Rockefeller believes that it must be done in the safest manner possible."