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A photo from a National Transportation Safety Board powerpoint from 2012 shows how DOT-111 tankers can puncture. Photo: NTSB.
A photo from a National Transportation Safety Board powerpoint from 2012 shows how DOT-111 tankers can puncture. Photo: NTSB.

"Inadequate" oil tankers rumble through Canton & North Country

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There's been renewed attention to the safety of the freight trains that run through North Country towns. The horrible oil explosion that destroyed much of a Quebec village and killed 47 people makes any railroad town ask, "what if?" And a plan by CSX to increase train speeds through the village of Canton has local officials concerned the rail company is putting quick commerce before safety.

An investigation by NCPR has found CSX is shipping hazardous liquids like crude oil through Canton and other towns on its Massena line using tankers federal regulators deemed "inadequate" two decades ago.

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Five times a day, on average, a train rumbles through the residential core of Canton. The line connects Syracuse with a rail yard near Montreal where CSX is investing more than 100 million dollars to upgrade. The trains pass through Adams, Watertown, Carthage, Gouverneur, Potsdam, Norwood, and Massena, too.

And they carry all kinds of stuff - lumber, steel or other metals, coal, and increasingly ethanol and crude oil from the domestic energy boom in the Midwest.

According to the Association of American Railroads, freight trains shipped 25 times more carloads of crude oil in 2012 than they did in 2008.

And the workhorse for this kind of cargo - the DOT-111 tanker – has been widely considered suspect for more than 20 years.

"Nobody inside or outside the industry you can find who will actually speak in defense of the current rolling stock," says Lloyd Burton, who studies rail transport of hazardous materials at the University of Colorado. In 1991, the Federal Transportation Safety Board called these tankers “inadequate.” As recently as 2012, the NTSB said they have a “high incidence of tank failure”. The DOT-111 is the black sausage-looking tanker that blew up in Lac Megantic, Quebec.

"Everybody knows that it’s outdated, that it’s brittle, that it’s dangerous, that it has no business carrying highly flammable toxic and explosive materials," says Burton.

CSX confirms that its clients use DOT-111s to transport crude and ethanol on the Massena line. The company declined to be interviewed for this story. Canadian Pacific and other railroads also use the tankers regularly to move crude in the Champlain Valley and other parts of the North Country.

CSX doesn’t give details about its cargo, but a spokesman said it will make information about materials handled available to emergency responders upon request. And in a recent meeting with State Senator Patty Ritchie and Canton officials, CSX offered to train emergency responders in the case of a derailment or spill.

According to Canton Mayor Dave Curry, "They said they’d be more than willing to do everything." He says train safety is an issue for village residents, especially now that CSX will be running trains through Canton at 40 miles per hour instead of 25. "Everybody worries all the time. Everybody worries about buildings are going to burn. Everybody worries about this type of thing," says Curry.

A DOT-111 tanker car. Photo: <a href="">Harvey Henkelmann</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
A DOT-111 tanker car. Photo: Harvey Henkelmann, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
None of the lawmakers we spoke to for this story were aware of the issues with the DOT-111s. Curry says federal regulators should have taken action years ago: "If the federal government saw any reason for the safety of the people that CSX may have been violating, they should have stepped in."

CSX and other railroads are obeying federal laws. But the federal government still hasn’t upgraded rail tanker standards. So the railroad industry has actually taken matters into its own hands.

"The industry decided that it needed to step it up and any cars built after October 2011 had to meet the new higher standards," says Patti Reilly, spokeswoman for the American Association of Railroads.

She says the new DOT-111s carrying crude oil and ethanol offer more safeguards: "Things called head protection, which is an additional outer layer of steel. It has thicker tank steel. And it has top fittings which provide extra protection."

But even Reilly doesn’t know when the old DOT-111s will be completely swapped out. They have long lives.

Congressman Bill Owens says that means there are still more questions to be answered about the older fleet. "Certainly I’m going to investigate this issue to find out from not only CSX but also the NTSB to determine what their view of these cars actually is," Owens said. In response to NCPR's investigation, Owens sent a letter on Tuesday to the NTSB and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration asking for more information.

Down the line from Canton, in Potsdam, train safety has flown below the radar. There are too many curves for CSX to increase speeds, says village mayor Steve Yugartis. But the tracks cross roads six times in the village.

Yugartis says that’s a lot of risk for old tankers with major safety concerns: "With so many crossings in the village and so many curves, if they were to go too fast by mistake, or if they were to hit a sizeable truck on the tracks, it could derail the tankers and it’s going right through the heart of the village and that’s a serious concern."

Despite years of questioning and safety-warnings, DOT-111s still make up about two-thirds of the tank-cars that railroads use in the US.  Following the disaster in Quebec, the Department of Transportation has begun a new rule-making process designed to evaluate the future use of DOT-111's for the shipping of hazardous materials.  It's unclear how long that review will take.

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