On May 1, 2015, the Department of Transportation (DOT) released long-awaited new safety standards for rail tank cars used to haul volatile Bakken and tar sands crude oil.
The new standards call for a phase out over 10 years of DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars commonly used to transport crude oil and known to puncture and explode during derailments. These are the same tank cars that were involved in the steady stream of catastrophic accidents over the last two years, including the Lac Mégantic, Quebec tragedy in July 2013 that killed 47 people and the most recent spate of four major fiery accidents over four weeks of 2015 in West Virginia, Illinois, and Ontario.
Sierra Club continues to call for an immediate ban on these cars, citing the federal agencies’ own projections that 15 derailments on mainlines are likely every year. DOT’s phase-out period allows the crude oil fleet to more than double before these tank cars are taken out of service, knowingly exposing communities daily to unacceptable risks.
The Sierra Club Environmental Law Program’s initial analysis identified several specific failures that leave the public at severe risk from oil trains:
- The rule fails to remove the most dangerous tank cars off US rails immediately, allowing instead for a 2-1/2 to 5 year phase-out of the oldest DOT-111s, and a phase out that will take a decade for all dangerous tank cars;
- Even after this phase out, the hazardous tank cars will still be allowed to ship explosive crude oil in a continuous block of 19 tank cars or fewer than 35 loaded tank cars in a train;
- While the rule imposes some speed limits for trains in “high threat urban areas,” only a few dozen cities around the nation have been so designated – leaving towns, cities, and drinking water sources highly vulnerable;
- Despite requiring somewhat thicker shells for new cars, DOT will allow retrofitted cars to meet a less protective standard;
- Inadequate speed limits allow oil trains to run at speeds well beyond the safe limits of even the newer tank cars.
“The Department of Transportation got it wrong with its so-called safety regulations for oil tank cars. Rather than accept these wholly inadequate rules, which jeopardize health and safety of communities along rail lines, the administration should place a moratorium on bomb trains outright,” said Lena Moffitt, Director of Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels Campaign. “For years the National Transportation Safety Board has called on the agency to take aggressive action to end the use of arcane tank cars, and communities and elected officials across the country are demanding aggressive action to eliminate the risk to 25 million Americans located in the blast zone. Today, DOT has failed the American public. Until meaningful safety benefits are put in place, communities across the country should not be exposed to volatile crude trains.”
Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program (ELP) submitted extensive legal and technical comments on the draft rules, and among other requested actions, urged the agency to immediately ban the oldest, most unsafe tank cars and provide notification of volatile crude trains to affected communities. In fall of 2014, ELP sued the DOT for refusing to halt the use of unsafe tank cars. ELP is actively litigating several proposed crude by rail terminals throughout the West Coast that, if built, would significantly increase the amount of volatile crude oil moving through communities nationwide. ELP will continue its critical assessment of the new rules to determine next steps to ensure that communities across the country are protected from this dangerous industry.