DOT wants tank cars used to haul crude oil off the tracks in two years

Thousands of shoddy tank cars that carry crude oil will be phased out over the next two years if rules proposed by the Department of Transportation Wednesday are approved.

"We need a new world order" for transporting fuel by rail, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters at a morning a press conference, according to USA Today.

Under the proposed rules, the older tank cars called DOT-111s would be retrofitted or phased out. The tank cars have become a flashpoint in the debate over the safety of moving crude oil by rail because of accidents across North America. Federal safety investigators have warned for more than 20 years that the cars tend to puncture and spill their loads when derailed.

The most disastrous accident involving the tank cars was in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013, when a unit train carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale derailed and exploded in the small Canadian town, killing 47 people.

“While we have made unprecedented progress through voluntary agreements and emergency orders, today’s proposal represents our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely,” Foxx said in a statement.

The proposed rules apply to trains carrying at least 20 cars of flammable fuels. They also include rules lowering speed limits and covering brakes, routing and a strict testing of the volatility of Bakken crude.

The DOT has found that crude from the Bakken region tends to be more volatile and flammable than other types of crude oil. In addition, it has been misclassified by some shippers as less flammable than it actually is.

The department has been working on the rules for months. Politicians, the rail industry and safety groups have complained that the agency has been dragging its feet on issuing new rules.

The rules will be published in the Federal Register and the public will be given 60 days to comment. Final rules are expected by early 2015.

From USA Today:

Some environmentalists criticized the new proposal as weak and inadequate. "They've severely underestimated the threat of these trains to the American public," said Matt Krogh of the non-profit advocacy group Forest Ethics.

"These are the heaviest, most dangerous trains on American tracks and they now pass through nearly every downtown in North America," he said, adding the worst ones are "unsafe at any speed" and should be banned immediately.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) called the proposed rules “a step in the right direction” in an emailed statement, but added that the issue needs additional action “including further work to ensure that more rail inspectors are on the job and that rail infrastructure is properly maintained.”

“Pennsylvania has borne the brunt of many of these derailments,” Casey said.

PublicSource wrote about problems with DOT-111 tank cars in March, after trains carrying crude oil in the cars derailed in Pennsylvania.

See our recent explainer for an overview of the crude-by-rail issue in Pennsylvania.

Reach Natasha Khan at 412-315-0261 or nkhan@publicsource.org.