Oil train fire rekindles push for tanker rules

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The derailment and explosion of a train carrying more than 100 tank cars full of crude oil in West Virginia is sparking fresh calls for stronger rules to counter increased safety and health risks posed by the fast-expanding industry.

The incident in rural Fayette County was the latest in a rapidly growing number of leaks, fires and other accidents involving the increasing volume of oil transported from North Dakota’s Bakken formation, and comes as the White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing a suite of draft regulations from the Transportation Department aimed at improving the safety of trains carrying crude.

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“The West Virginia disaster, just like all these crude-by-rail disasters we’ve seen in recent years ... makes these federal safety rules even more urgent,” said Devorah Ancel, an attorney with the Sierra Club.

U.S. railroads shipped 415,000 carloads of oil last year, a sharp increase over the 10,000 shipped in 2008, according to the Transportation Department. That’s due mainly to the rise in unconventional drilling techniques like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, which have made the United States the top oil producer in the world.

Meanwhile, major crude-by-rail incidents have risen as well, hitting 118 nationally last year, up from just one in 2009.

After incidents like a massive explosion in Quebec, Canada, that killed 47 in 2013, and a derailment and spill in Virginia in 2014, environmentalists say it’s beyond time for the Obama administration to act.

But Ancel said the National Transportation Safety Board sounded the alarm about tank cars under the DOT-111 standard as early as 1991.

DOT-111 is the decades-old regulatory standard that the oil industry and railroads have been operating under in North America.

“This action is long overdue,” Ancel said.

While recognizing that the administration is taking action, Matt Krogh, the oil campaign director for ForestEthics, also lamented the pace of action.

“The political process seems to be moving remarkably slowly, with the railroads, tank car industry and petroleum producers fighting over who has to pay for obvious — and necessary — safety upgrades,” Krogh said.

The rules were proposed last July and are on track to be made final in May.

The new standards are likely to include thicker shells for oil tankers, enhanced braking capabilities, new speed limits or some combination of those chages.

Older tank cars that don’t fit the standards and aren’t retrofitted would have to be phased out within seven years, a timeline that both oil and rail interests said would be too quick and too expensive.

“The tank car rule is a top priority for this department,” Suzanne Emmerling, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Department, said in a statement. “We have been fully engaged and will continue to place our full attention on getting a final rule in place as quickly as possible and ensure it is done right. Yesterday’s derailment serves as yet another reminder of the urgency of the issue at hand.”

The oil and rail industries say their operations are safe, and stress that 99.998 percent of hazardous rail shipments happen without incident.

“Even one incident is too many, so we are working with regulators and the railroads to enhance safety through a comprehensive approach to accident prevention, mitigation and response,” Brian Straessle, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute (API), said in a statement.

API’s position is that tank car design can only go so far, and improvements also need to happen in incident response and prevention.

In Monday’s derailment, roughly 25 cars of the CSX Corp. train left the tracks and 20 caught fire in a series of explosions next to the Kanawha River, though no cars entered the river itself, the company said. No one died in the incident; two nearby towns were evacuated and municipal water supplies were stopped.

The accident set West Virginia’s congressional delegation into motion. Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinHow Congress got to yes on toxic chemical reform Red-state Dem hits back over coal, court attacks How Senate Democrats are trying to deal with Sanders MORE (D) and Rep. Evan Jenkins (R) went to Mount Carbon to help monitor evacuations and water supplies, while the offices of Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Moore CapitoInvest in infrastructure to transform America Senate Republicans ask Trump to soften his tone Skittish GOP to Trump: Drop the insults MORE (R) and Rep. Alex Mooney (R) conducted outreach efforts for residents, responders and officials.

Mooney said he’s open to hearing recommendations about how rail safety could be improved. But he also said increased use of pipelines, like the proposed Keystone XL, would help reduce dependence on rail transportation, which is less safe.

“It is unfortunate the president continues to use executive action to obstruct projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, which would lighten the burden on our railway and highway systems,” he said in a statement. “I will continue to fight for a fair and transparent permitting process for pipeline projects.”

Manchin also said he’s open to improving safety, though he didn’t endorse any specifics.

The Transportation Department has sent at least half a dozen investigators to the scene of the accident, and is expected to send more. The National Transportation Safety board has not said whether it will investigate.