Communities Not Prepared for Worst-Case Rail Accidents: NTSB

Bloomberg BNA — Deborah Hersman, the outgoing chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said April 21 that U.S. communities are not prepared to respond adequately to worst-case accidents involving trains carrying crude oil and ethanol.

Answering questions following her farewell address at the National Press Club in Washington, Hersman said U.S. regulators are behind the curve in addressing the transport of hazardous liquids by rail. She said federal regulations have not been revised to address the increase in rail transport of crude oil and other flammable liquids—an increase of over 440 percent since 2005.

Hersman, who is leaving her post at NTSB April 25 to serve as president of the National Safety Council, said the petroleum industry and first responders don't have provisions in place to address a worst-case scenario event involving a train carrying crude oil or ethanol. She said several catastrophic accidents have involved crude oil, including a July 2013 train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that resulted in 47 fatalities.

The NTSB, in conjunction with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, identified regulatory steps that could be taken by the Transportation Department to address safety risks, including expanded route planning requirements for crude oil shipments, the addition of a requirement for carriers to develop response plans for incidents involving crude oil shipments and increased audits of shippers and carriers to ensure that hazardous liquids are properly classified.

Hersman said the NTSB scheduled a two-day forum to hear from first responders and the petroleum and rail industries on safety issues. The forum, which will be held on April 22-23 in Washington, will include discussions on tank car design, emergency response to releases of flammable liquids and federal oversight of crude oil and ethanol transport, according to an agenda posted on the NTSB's website.

Tank Car Safety

When asked about the adequacy of the DOT-111 rail tank car to carry crude oil, Hersman reiterated the NTSB's position that the tank cars are not safe to carry hazardous liquids.

The NTSB recommended in 2009 that all new and existing tank cars in crude oil and ethanol service be equipped with additional safety design features, including enhanced tank head and shell puncture resistance systems, top fittings protection and bottom outlet valves that remain closed during accidents.

“We have said that they are not safe enough to carry hazardous liquids,” Hersman said about the DOT-111 legacy cars. “Carrying corn oil is fine, carrying crude oil is not.”

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration is working on a proposed rule to update the federal design standards for DOT-111 rail tank cars used to transport hazardous liquids. The consensus among industry and regulators is that new design standards are needed, but there is disagreement over whether the new safety requirements should be more stringent than the CPC-1232 standard, a voluntary industry standard adopted for all new tank cars ordered after Oct. 1, 2011.

Staffing Limitations Said to Delay Work

NTSB staff needs support from Congress to fulfill their mission, Hersman said. At present, she said the NTSB is involved in more than 20 rail accident investigations but only has “about 10 rail investigators.”

“We're going to have to turn down accidents that occur in the future because we have too much on our plate.”

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