GOP’s anti-regulations push hits snag

Green groups say a series of high-profile environmental accidents are making the case for tougher safeguards on the nation’s energy infrastructure.

The spill of a coal-cleaning chemical in West Virginia last week and a pair of recent North Dakota train wrecks involving crude oil expose the need for stronger federal protections, Democrats and environmental groups charge.

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“It should make it harder for any member of Congress to say we don’t need safeguards and don’t need action, given what we are seeing,” said Jeff Gohringer of the League of Conservation Voters.

Officials in West Virginia began Monday to lift a ban affecting an estimated 300,000 people without tap water, since the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol spilled into the Elk River five days earlier.

Environmental advocates were quick to seize on the accident in a rebuttal to the GOP campaign against President Obama’s rule-making policies and assertions that a war on coal is being waged in Washington.

The head of a GOP environmental group said the accidents should have little bearing on the larger debate over regulations, at least before all the facts are known.

“Republicans have to step up in this situation and talk about what sort of government regulations would be appropriate to protect the citizens,” said Rob Sisson, president of Republicans for Environmental Protection. “Were appropriate regulations in place?”

To the contrary, coal country’s allies in Washington have helped shield the industry from government oversight, said Sierra Club spokesman John Coequyt.

“This is the kind of thing that happens when regulations are not in place,” Coequyt said. “This makes it clear that the coal industry cannot be trusted to police itself. There need to be safeguards in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Jason Hayes, associate director of the American Coal Council, countered that the accident has no connection to the Environmental Protection Agency power plant emissions regulations that have been the focus of the industry’s ire.

Rather, he said, the accident was a chemical leak that has no link to any of the industry group’s members.

“There’s going to be some groups trying to connect the two and say it’s another black mark on the coal industry,” Hayes said.

Jim Forbes, a spokesman for Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), bristled at the notion that the problem was related to coal.

“What happened in Charleston has nothing to do with coal,” he said in a statement The Hill. “This could have been a chemical used in any industry. We need to have all the facts on the table before making generalizations.”

The West Virginia accident comes in the midst of the Obama administration’s efforts to overhaul federal chemical safety regulations in response to April’s deadly fertilizer plant explosion in Texas.

Last week, an interagency taskforce empanelled after the blast to pursue additional safeguards, unveiled an array of proposed regulations that could help avert future disasters.

A spate of crude-by-rail accidents in recent months has yielded calls for similar regulatory reviews and calls from lawmakers for the Transportation Department to complete new safety standards for railcars and tankers.  

“It is incredibly important for North Dakota that we have smart rail regulations in place,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said following a meeting with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Administration head Cynthia Quarterman. 

”They will give certainty to our shippers, and, most importantly, respond to the very legitimate safety concerns of North Dakotans.”

A train carrying crude oil derailed in North Dakota on Dec. 30, forcing thousands of residents to flee the possible toxic fumes. The BNSF Railway Co. train caused a series of explosions after derailing, but none of the train’s crew was injured, according to reports from the railway company.

The derailment was the fourth in North America over a span of six months by trains carrying crude oil. As shale from North Dakota to Texas has pushed U.S. output to the highest level since 1988, record volumes of crude are moving by train.

And pipeline development is failing to keep up, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said.

Derailments of cars carrying crude oil have also been an issue in Canada, which is looking to tighten regulations in the wake of several accidents, including one that nearly wiped a small town in Quebec off the map.

A preliminary report on the Dec. 30 rail accident in Casselton, N.D., released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Monday added to growing concerns.

The report found roughly 400,000 tons of crude oil spilled in the accident, and of the 20 tankers that derailed, 18 were punctured. 

The majority of tankers on U.S. railways are DOT-111s, which have not been upgraded for decades, Brigham McCown, a former Transportation regulator who oversaw railways, told The Hill.

“The Department of Transportation has sufficient regulatory power to at this point be requiring the railroad industry to modernize tank car specifications that have remained largely unchanged since 1964,” he said.

But when the Obama administration attempted to boost safety standards for railcars last year, the oil industry said retrofitting tens of thousands of exiting tank cars would be too costly.

Instead, the industry adopted voluntary standards, ensuring tank cars manufactured after October 2011 would meet tougher requirements. 

And the Natural Resource Defense Council says inadequate requirements are to blame for devastating railcar accidents like the one in December.

”[It] shows that that, without adequate requirements, statutory or regulation requirements, there is a price to pay,” Scott Slesinger, legislative director at NRDC said.

Hoeven said he has been pushing the Transportation Department to update the 2011 standards since last year.

Following his meeting with Foxx last week, Hoeven says he expects the Transportation Department to issue the new tanker standards within several weeks.