On October 1, DOT will implement stricter safety standards for America’s crude-oil transporting railcars, but two suburban Chicago communities have challenged the rules, citing glaring loopholes in the soon-to-be-implemented regulation.
On October 1, the Department of Transportation (DOT) will implement stricter safety standards for America’s crude-oil transporting railcars. The new regulation, which follows devastating derailments in Lac Megantic, Quebec, and Lynchburg, Virginia, will require the phasing-out or retrofitting of industry standard tank cars deemed unfit for the safe transport of crude oil and petroleum products. Now, two suburban Chicago communities have asked a federal appellate court to further review the rules, citing glaring loopholes in the soon-to-be-implemented regulation.
Barrington, Illinois, a community of about 10,000 people 30 miles northwest of Chicago, was among the first municipalities to formally challenge DOT’s rules. Six years ago, five freight trains would travel through the town each day, some of which were carrying hazardous materials, but the frequency quadrupled to 20 per day following the 2007 acquisition of the regional Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern Railway by railroad giant Canadian National (CN). Two years later, an ethanol train derailment in Cherry Valley, Illinois pushed local officials to call for urgent action from DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the agency responsible for the safe transport of hazardous materials. Barrington’s appeal with the City of Aurora is currently before the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court and represents one of the community challenges to DOT’s rule that highlights the concerns of locally elected officials across the country.
Safety of DOT-111 tank cars
The recent growth in North American oil and gas production is driving a massive increase in the movement of crude by rail. More than 10 percent of daily U.S. oil production now moves on America’s railways, up from one percent five years ago.
The recent growth in North American oil and gas production is driving a massive increase in the movement of crude by rail. More than 10 percent of daily U.S. oil production now moves on America’s railways, up from one percent five years ago. In North Dakota—where production has increased at a breakneck pace since the start of the oil boom—crude-by-rail offers important advantages compared to alternatives such as pipelines. For one, rail is geographically flexible, serving nearly every major refinery in the United States and Canada. Rail enables shippers to move crude using existing infrastructure, rather than constructing costly and fixed-route pipelines. In North Dakota, more than 70 percent of the state’s production moves out of the region by rail. Nevertheless, the heavy use of rail is in some ways a suboptimal response forced by rapid changes in the market. As Energy Trends Insider Robert Rapier told The Fuse earlier this year, “A pipeline infrastructure would be the best-case scenario. We’d still have accidents, but you’re an order of magnitude safer doing it by pipeline.”
But a string of derailments has kept many towns and cities along freight lines on edge. As early as 1991, federal safety officials warned the majority of tank cars in use were prone to puncturing. Standards to improve these cars, however, largely stalled until May of this year when transportation officials formalized the rule restricting the number of DOT-111 tank cars that can traverse U.S. railways. Mile-long trains, called “high-hazard flammable trains,” or HHFTs, are designated as continuous blocks of 20 or more tank cars loaded with flammable liquids, or 35 or more cars loaded with flammable liquids throughout the train. “Trains can have 34 cars of [unimproved] DOT-111s… It’s a hole large enough to drive a freight train through,” Barrington village president Karen Darch told The Fuse.
Barrington and Aurora are particularly concerned that DOT’s rule is too narrow because it exclusively applies to HHFTs. Legacy DOT-111s, which frequently travel on trains of 50-to-120 cars, are capable of carrying 50,000 to 90,000 barrels of oil in a single journey. Shippers use them because they have lower per unit costs than manifest trains carrying a mix of materials. A widely-cited 1991 National Transportation Safety Board report found 54 percent of DOT-111s were involved in accidents that released materials, far higher than for other models. The department’s new rules require trains to be equipped with thicker steel jackets, sturdier head shields, and top-fitting protections that could reduce the incidence of accidental spills by half. Retrofits of older DOT-111s could see reductions of as much as 75 percent.
The cost of retrofitting cars to post-2011 standards can be high, as much as $20,000 to $40,000 per car, and could cost one billion dollars to upgrade industry-wide.
The railroad industry says upgrades to legacy cars can be expensive. Most trains have a service life of 35 years, and until 2011, they were manufactured according to older standards. According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the cost of retrofitting cars to post-2011 standards can be high, as much as $20,000 to $40,000 per car, and could cost one billion dollars to upgrade industry-wide. “The goal is for these improvements to be implemented as aggressively as possible, without curbing the industry’s ability to serve energy sector customers and support North American progress toward energy independence,” an AAR spokesman told the trade publication Railway Age. “Lots of accidents have occurred with far fewer than 20 trains, so…there’s lots of vulnerability,” Darch said, reacting to AAR’s appeal of the rules.
Braking, thermal insulation, and local notification
Many state governments and municipalities are closely monitoring progress on electronically controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP), which have the potential to reduce the number of cars punctured in an accident, decrease the chance of a pile-up, and give train operators a chance to stop quickly if they see an obstacle on the tracks. DOT’s rules now require ECP to be installed on crude-carrying trains by 2021, but some in the railroad industry warn that the technology can be expensive, costing roughly $10,000 per tank car.
Many state governments and municipalities are closely monitoring progress on electronically controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP), which have the potential to reduce the number of cars punctured in an accident.
Thermal insulation and pressure relief valves must be installed on new and retrofitted tank cars to protect against heat and flames, allowing first responders to control burns. Industry groups encouraged federal regulators to adopt a higher standard so that tank cars can survive in a pool of fire for up to 800 minutes. However, DOT kept a 100-minute standard, saying tests at the 100-minute mark should be “used as a benchmark for adequate performance.” Barrington and Aurora say that emergency responders have a better chance to control a disaster if a rupture to a train car can make it through 800 minutes in such a scenario. “First, we’d like you to keep it on the tracks. But if you can’t do that, then we would like you to keep the stuff in the car,” Darch said.
Concerns about the combustibility of Bakken crude, in particular, forced federal officials to issue a safety alert in May 2014 requiring railroads to notify state emergency response commissions and tribal authorities when long trains carrying petroleum were passing through communities. Trains were limited to urban speed limits under certain conditions. But the emergency alert missed the majority of the trains carrying crude oil, leaving some local officials still worried about the presence of long unit trains filled with petroleum in their communities.
In the May 2015 regulation, DOT excluded a provision that would have required railroads to notify towns of incoming crude oil-carrying trains. Some railroads have instead rolled out a mobile application equipping first responders with the details of what train cars are carrying. Railroads need only to provide a point of contact for information relating to the routing of hazardous materials, and in the event of an accident requiring emergency response, they only have to carry a paper manifest of the trains’ contents. Following the Cherry Valley derailment, a federal safety investigation revealed the train crew was one mile away from emergency responders, who took two hours to obtain the paper manifest.
“No one can predict where a derailment or a problem may occur,” Aurora mayor Tom Weisner told The Fuse, whose town is party to the federal appeal. “We may have all the foam in stock in the world, but it’s got to get to the site. It’s got to be applied. And how long it takes to get to that site and what happens or transpires in the meantime is very hard to predict… As well trained as [emergency responders] are, it’s very difficult for any government to honestly tell people that there’s nothing to worry about.”