Dem: Investigate oil-carrying train derailments

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) is calling for Congress to hold hearings about derailments of freight trains that are carrying oil after a recent accident in North Dakota.

Two trains carrying crude oil that was being operated by the Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF Railway Company collided last week in Casselton, North Dakota when a train traveling east derailed, according to the company.

Twenty-one of the BNSF cars caught on fire during the accident, which followed another high-profile oil-by-rail accident last year in Canada.

DeFazio said on Tuesday that it was time for Congress to step up its investigation of the oil freight rail industry.

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“The recent derailment and resulting fire on a train carrying crude oil near Casselton, North Dakota, is just the latest in a string of accidents that call into question the safety of rail cars carrying hazardous materials,” the Oregon lawmaker wrote in a letter. “That’s why I am writing to request that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hold a hearing as soon as possible to examine the safety of our nation’s rail cars, specifically DOT-111 tank cars that are used to transport crude oil.”

Advocates for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline have seized upon the recent rail crashes to argue that companies would be able to move hazardous materials around if the pipeline was built.

The Obama administration has resisted calls to build the Keystone pipeline thus far, citing environmental concerns.

DeFazio has opposed the construction of the Keystone pipeline, like most Democrats in Congress.

He said on Tuesday that oil freight rail systems could be made safer if trains were shortened.

“The number of carloads of oil being shipped by rail has increased dramatically in recent years as a result of increased oil production from the Bakken region; and, just last week, [the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration] issued preliminary guidance indicating “that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil,” DeFazio wrote. “Despite a significant increased in the number of shipments and the likelihood that shipments are more hazardous than previously thought, the safety of the majority of the rail cars carrying these shipments has not increased.”  

The Association of American Railroads (AAR), which lobbies for freight rail companies in Washington, has defended the safety of freight shipments in the U.S.

“Our nation’s freight rails, the large class ones, as well as the state, local and regional short ride railroads, every single day move millions and millions of tons of goods, produced by Americans businesses and consumed by Americans daily,” AAR President Ed Hemberger said in a video that was posted on the freight rail association’s website after the initial Canadian oil train crash.

“What we move, we move safely, and we have a great track record to prove it,” Hemberger continued. “But unfortunately, accidents do happen.”    

The AAR has called for the Obama administration to launch a review of rail cars that carry oil and boost standards for labeling the contents that are being carried by the trains.