September 22, 2014: Sierra Club Staff Attorney Devorah Ancel was interviewed as part of an investigative report on a crude oil train car derailment. The report discovered that the derailment, which occurred outside of LaSalle, Colorado on May 9, 2014, could have been prevented. Months after the spill, measurements show groundwater in the area to be polluted with toxic levels of benzene.
More On Deficient Rail Car Safety Regulations
On July 23, 2014, the Department of Transportation proposed a set of long-overdue rules to address the alarming increase in crude oil spills from rail cars. The rules, which are expected to be finalized next year, would phase out the oldest, most dangerous tanker cars starting in 2017, and would establish new, lower speed limits for transporting explosive fuels.
The proposed rules acknowledge the dangerous risks inherent in transporting oil by rail but do far too little, too late, and the process takes far too long. The proposed rules do not adequately address the immediate and growing threat posed by crude-by-rail accidents. That is why last week, the Sierra Club called for an immediate ban of the outdated and unsafe oil tank cars. The Department of Transportation needs to make the rails safe, not shelter the profit of dirty polluters.
On July 15, 2014, Sierra Club filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Transportation requesting that the agency issue an emergency order prohibiting the use of DOT-111 rail tank cars for transporting flammable Bakken and other volatile fracked crudes. The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly found that DOT-111 tank cars are prone to puncture on impact, spilling oil and often triggering destructive fires and explosions. The U.S. Department of Transportation itself has found that rail transport of Bakken crude poses an "imminent hazard" to public health and safety, yet it has failed to take meaningful action that requires the industry to eliminate those risks. To date, the agency has simply urged shippers to use the safest tank cars in their fleets. Canada already has banned the use of the oldest DOT-111s on the tracks.
Although the agency began a rulemaking process to set new safety standards for crude oil rail cars, that process is moving too slowly and could drag on a year or more before a final rule is implemented. A one year delay in improved safety standards, is one year too long.In addition to severe accidents causing loss of life and thousands of evacuations, in the last year alone our nation saw more oil spill from tank cars than has spilled in the past four decades. An immediate ban on the use of DOT-111 tank cars to ship Bakken crude, as the petition requests, would reduce the risk of punctures and oil spills by over 75 percent, according to rail industry estimates.
The recent surge in U.S. oil production, much of it from Bakken shale, has led to a more than 4,000 percent increase in crude oil shipped by rail since 2005, mostly in long oil trains with as many as 120 cars and over 1.5 miles long. Huge increases in the number of crude trains traveling through communities have mobilized towns across the country to oppose this hazardous activity and call for a national emergency ban on all DOT-111 tank cars.
On May 7, 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued an emergency order identifying the movement of crude oil by rail as an "imminent hazard," and requiring rail operators to alert local emergency responders when oil is transported through their states. But the evidence is clear – DOT must go further by requiring the retirement of all DOT-111 tank cars.
DOT-111 rail cars, used to transport oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale reservoir, were designed in the 1960s long before the oil industry was fracking highly volatile crude known to corrode the walls of this aging fleet of tank cars and cause fires and explosions which have devastated communities across North America. Even newer models of these cars - CP-1232s - have proven deficient for carrying crude safely. The most recent of these fiery disasters occurred in Lynchburg, Virginia in early May, in which several of the new model cars derailed and ignited spilling 30,000 gallons of crude into the James River and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people. This accident follows the Lac Megantic, Quebec disaster in which DOT-111 tank cars derailed and exploded leaving 47 people dead and flattening more than 40 buildings. The unfettered expansion of crude by rail transport has been riddled with failure after failure, including an oil spill rate in 2013 that surpasses all the oil spilled from tank cars in the past four decades.
DOT's recent emergency order and other voluntary measures, at best, pay lip service to the thousands of communities positioned in the line of fire that need immediate protection. These efforts don't come close to matching Canada's recent commitment to retire its DOT-111 fleet by 2017, despite the National Transportation Safety Board's persistent warnings of the dangers of transporting crude by rail and urging the agency to meaningfully regulate rail cars to prevent accidents. The oil industry argues that phasing out old rail cars will curtail its surging profits coming from fracking the Bakken. Is DOT's lack of strong action a sign that the agency has prioritized industry’s concerns over public health and safety?
In 2013 Sierra Club submitted comments to DOT demanding retirement of all DOT-111 tank cars, as well as requiring other safety measures such as preparation of worst case scenario emergency response plans, installation of positive train control technology on all trains carrying crude, testing and notification to first responders and communities of all hazardous substances being transported by rail, and increased resources for emergency response training, among other measures. DOT must prioritize the safety of communities across the country and pass strong crude rail safety regulation, beginning with the rapid retirement of the full fleet of DOT-111 tank cars. Read more...