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New U.S. rules for oil tank cars coming

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx listens to statements from Casselton and Cass County officials concerning rail car safety during a meeting Thursday at the fire station in Casselton, N.D. North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven is at right. Dave Wallis/Forum News Service

CASSELTON, N.D. – The U.S. Department of Transportation will submit a package of regulatory changes for rail shippers next week that include new tank car standards, Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Thursday.

Foxx, meeting with North Dakota’s federal delegation and other officials in Casselton to discuss improving rail safety, also said he believes the changes will include a retrofit or phaseout of the DOT-111 cars that are commonly used for shipping crude oil.

Those cars, which federal safety officials say are prone to puncture in derailments, were involved in several explosive crude-by-rail incidents in the past year, including the fiery derailment in Casselton.

The new tank car standards wouldn’t be implemented for months or more, and they won’t even be made public until after they’re reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget – a 90-day process at least.

Foxx said he couldn’t comment on what changes may be brewing to strengthen the tank cars used to ship Bakken crude and other hazardous liquids, but said he believes “the DOT-111 is going to have to be either retrofitted or replaced.”

His announcement comes just a day after Canadian officials unveiled plans to phase out or retrofit DOT-111 rail cars used for carrying crude oil by May 2017.

Unless Washington, D.C., acted, Canada’s move to weed out the DOT-111s raised a concern that more of the older cars would be forced into service in the U.S. An estimated 95,000 DOT-111s are used to ship hazardous liquids throughout North America, according to the Railway Supply Institute.

But Foxx and other federal officials said there’s no need to fear mismatched regulations on tank cars between the two countries.

“We are likely to even be on pace with (Canada), or slightly ahead of them,” he said.

An inadequate car

The National Transportation Safety Board started highlighting concerns about using DOT-111s to ship hazardous materials more than two decades ago. These older cars can “almost always be expected to breach in derailments,” the agency concluded after investigating a 2009 crash of an ethanol train.

Those cars were hauling Bakken crude east when they collided with a derailed grain train just west of Casselton on Dec. 30. Of the 20 cars onboard the oil train that derailed, 18 were punctured. No one was injured in the accident.

DOT-111s also were involved last summer in Quebec, where a train hurtled into Lac Mégantic, killing 47 and leveling much of the small town.

Foxx said his agency is moving as fast as possible with new tank car standards but stressed the importance of not rushing to a new standard.

“The worst thing we could do is to propose a tank car standard that is inadequate to the material that is being transported,” he said.

The key, he said, is the volatility and flammability of Bakken crude. The Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is still studying the composition of North Dakota’s light, sweet crude, and federal officials have repeatedly called on oil producers to be more forthcoming with their own data.

Foxx said he sent another letter requesting information from Bakken producers Thursday.

Shippers already have begun pivoting to a newer car model with thicker hulls and metallic head shields at each end, among other improvements. The Railway Supply Institute has estimated about 55,000 of these cars will be in use in 2015.

The new tank car specifications Canada announced Wednesday would fall in line with those newer models.

More work to be done

Though they stressed the need to improve tank car standards, North Dakota’s public officials said it was just one of several steps necessary to ensure that the growing amounts of crude oil shipped through the state move safely.

Shipments of Bakken crude oil increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 407,642 carloads in 2013.

That increase in traffic, and rail safety in general, has come to the forefront in North Dakota after the Casselton derailment.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said they also need to focus on preventing derailments through increased inspections and boosting training for emergency responders.

“I know the people in my town will certainly sleep a lot better tonight if they know we’ve done everything we can,” Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell said during the safety roundtable inside his city’s fire department.

But Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said the concerns about the safety of crude-by-rail are reverberating across the nation.

“We don’t stand alone, but yet we have a unique position … as the generator of Bakken crude to begin to address these safety concerns,” she said.

Kyle Potter
Kyle Potter is an enterprise reporter at the Forum. He came to Fargo-Moorhead in May 2013 after stints at the Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minnesota Daily. 
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