Feds, lawmakers warn of fire risk from oil trains

Officials are warning that crude oil of “all types and from all regions” poses a flammability risk during rail transport.

"Crude oil of all types and from all regions are flammable materials," acting National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Chris Hart wrote in a letter to Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden (D) and Jeff Merkley (D) released Thursday evening.

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Hart’s letter comes after the Transportation Department in May issued an emergency order warning the public and first responders that crude oil coming out of the Bakken formation was more flammable and likely to set off an explosion than other types of crude.

Now, things have changed, according to Hart, who said the dangers from the increasing number of oil shipments by rail go beyond crude oil from just the Bakken formation in the Northern Plains.

A number of accidents involving crude oil from other regions resulted in spills and "caused environmental damage and fires," Hart said in the letter.

Concern over the number of crude-by-rail shipments across the U.S. increased after an uptick in accidents across the U.S. and Canada in the last year, including the Lac-Magentic, Quebec derailment, which killed 47 people.

In his letter to the senators, Hart noted derailments in Mississippi, Minnesota, New Brunswick and Pennsylvania of oil from Canada that are a prime example of "the risks to communities and for the environment for accidents involving non-Bakken crude oil."

After receiving the letter, Wyden and Merkley sent their own to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, calling on him to expand the department's warning on Bakken crude to include crude from all regions of the U.S. and Canada.

The Oregon Democrats urged Foxx to drop the threshold on the order from 1 million gallons to include smaller shipments. 

"With the exception of the Lac Megantic accident, every accident involving crude oil, ethanol and other flammable materials since 2006 has resulted in a hazardous materials release of less than 1,000,000 gallons," the letter to Foxx states.

The letter adds: "We believe these examples demonstrate that non-Bakken oil shipments of crude, and crude trains carrying less than 1,000,000 gallons pose an imminent hazard."

The update comes as oil and railroad industry representatives have met with the White House 10 times in the last month on the proposed tank car standards to mitigate the number of crude-by-rail accidents.

In the last month, Shell, American Petroleum Institute, BNSF railway, Quantum Energy and more have met with officials from the Transportation Department and White House Office of Management and Budget, according to meeting records