On Wednesday, a week after a train loaded with crude oil from North Dakota exploded in downtown Lynchburg, Va., dumping 30,000 gallons of oil into the James River, the Department of Transportation announced two moves to try to keep this from happening so frequently. It’s doubtful that either will make much of a difference in preventing what’s become a major safety hazard in the U.S.
Under a new “emergency order,” the DOT said it’s now going to require any railroad that ships a large amount of crude to tell state emergency responders what it’s up to. That includes telling them how much crude it’s hauling and the exact route it intends to take. Railroads also now have to provide local emergency responders with contact information of at least one person who’s familiar with the load, in case, you know the local fire chief needs to find out what the heck’s inside that overturned tank car that just unleashed a 400-foot fireball.
This emergency order applies to any train carrying more than 1 million gallons of crude specifically from the Bakken region of North Dakota. That’s essentially all the trains hauling crude across the U.S. right now. Since there aren’t enough pipelines connecting the oil fields in North Dakota, most of the nearly 1 million barrels the state produces leaves every day by train. It takes about 35 tank cars to haul 1 million gallons. Most of these oil trains are 100 cars long and stretch over a mile.
The reason this applies only to Bakken crude is twofold. First, that’s most of what’s being hauled. Second, the oil coming out of the Bakken is unlike any other kind that’s out there. It’s light, sweet, and superflammable, with high levels of propane and methane. That makes it almost impossible for local first responders to put out the fires that erupt when these trains derail. Sometimes, their only recourse is to evacuate the area and watch the tank cars burn.
Knowing these trains are coming might help the local fire and police departments prepare, but unless these local emergency teams get better equipment to deal with these fires, it’s unclear how much good any advance notice will do. And considering how frequently these trains are crisscrossing the country, you can’t evacuate town every time an oil train rumbles through. Prior notification will, however, give a heads up to all the local officials, who have been largely clueless about all the oil that’s getting transported by rail through their cities and towns. Last week, Lynchburg’s city manager, Kimball Payne, admitted to the Wall Street Journal that he had no idea that CSX was moving oil through town.
On top of the emergency order, the DOT on Wednesday issued a “safety advisory,” in which it “strongly urg[ed]” the oil companies shipping Bakken crude on trains to use the best tank cars they can. This advisory came from the Federal Railroad Administration, a division of DOT. How that differs from the organization’s normal position on safety isn’t clear. But it seems not unlike the FAA, after a rash of plane crashes, “strongly urging” airlines to buy the safest kind of planes they can and stop using old, outclassed ones.
The old, outclassed ones in this case is the DOT-111 model of tank car that’s been involved in most of the crude train explosions, including the one last summer in Quebec that killed 47 people. Although it’s widely deemed unfit for transporting crude, the DOT-111 is used to move the vast majority of oil sent by train in the U.S. It’s also the same classification of tank car that’s used to haul agricultural commodities, such as corn or soybeans.
According to the investment bank Cowen Group, about 100,000 DOT-111 tank cars in the U.S. are used to haul flammables such as crude and ethanol. About three-quarters of them may require retrofitting or a gradual phaseout. While some energy companies, such as Tesoro, are already choosing to phase out DOT-111s in their North Dakota operations, most companies are sticking with them until they’re forced to change. A complicating factor is that it’s not even clear, given how volatile Bakken crude is, whether using safer, better-reinforced cars would even help keep a derailed train from exploding.
The DOT’s safety advisory urging the use of better tank cars is a weaker step than what Canadian regulators did two weeks ago, when they aggressively moved to phase out all DOT-111s from hauling crude within three years. In an e-mail, a DOT spokesperson wrote that the agency is moving as quickly as it can to update its tank car regulations and that the safety advisory is a step it can take immediately. Last week, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx sent to the White House a list of options on how to make crude-by-rail safer.
The DOT is obviously getting pushback from energy companies, which would have to foot the bill for leasing more robust tank cars. It’s unclear how many of the energy companies will decide to switch because the federal government is strongly urging them to.