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Several CSX trains carrying crude oil derailed and exploded last week in Lynchburg, VA. Photo: Elyssa Ezmirly, used with permission
Several CSX trains carrying crude oil derailed and exploded last week in Lynchburg, VA. Photo: Elyssa Ezmirly, used with permission

Feds order disclosure of crude oil train shipments

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Railroads will have to tell emergency responders when and where shipments of crude oil are traveling on the rails. That's according to a new order the U.S. Department of Transportation released yesterday.

The rule comes following a string of oil train spills and explosions dating back to last summer's deadly blast in Quebec. The latest occurred last week in Lynchburg, Virginia. The DOT is also "strongly urging" oil companies to pull the most dangerous tanker cars off the rails as soon as possible.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer praised DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx's order yesterday. "A week ago, I asked the secretary to implement this rule," Schumer said by video release, "because the number of tanker cars containing flammable crude oil that are going through our communities in upstate New York is on the dramatic increase and should, god forbid, one of those tank cars derail, it could create an explosion."

David Sommerstein joined Martha Foley to talk about the new rules.

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Martha Foley: David, so what exactly does this rule say?

David Sommerstein: It says railroad companies will have to tell state emergency officials when trains carrying more than a million gallons of crude oil, or about 35 tanker cars' worth of oil, are coming through a community. They'll have to say which counties, what routes, and exactly what cargo – and this is on a per week basis, not real time. State officials will in turn tell local first responders.

Now that's a pretty high threshold – 35 tankers – but trains with dozens of oil tankers have been rumbling through the Champlain Valley, St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties, so this rule will address at least some of those.

Sen. Schumer has been pressing the DOT to act on these so-called "oil trains" for months now. The industry group representing the trains in all this, the American Association of Railroads, issued a two sentence statement yesterday, saying the railroads would "do all they can to comply" with the new regulations.

MF: Let's take a step back and talk about that "dramatic increase" for a minute. Why is all this oil coming through North Country rail towns now?

DS: There's been an oil boom in the Bakkan fields of North Dakota, much like in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. And there have been a lot of battles between oil companies and environmentalists over building a pipeline to get all that oil to refineries, which are mostly on the East, West, and Gulf coasts. It's called the Keystone XL pipeline here in the U.S.

So meanwhile, all that oil had to go somewhere. So oil shipments on trains increased 40 times over between 2008 and last year, creating what is essentially a moving pipeline. And that's what has come through towns like Canton and Potsdam, Adams, Port Henry, Westport, Crown Point, and dozens of other towns across New York state.

MF: So this happened quietly, right under everyone's noses, until that oil train exploded in Lac-Mégantic. That killed 47 people. And it it's starting to draw attention to the potential dangers of these oil trains.

The focus of that investigation centered on these faulty tanker cars – DOT-111s. What does the Department of Transportation propose to do about those?

DS: Yes, the DOT-111s were deemed inadequate and thin-hulled 20 years ago by federal regulators. Yet nothing was done. And National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman basically conceded last week, just before she stepped down from her post, that that was because it would have cost the railroad industry too much money to replace them. "Follow the money," she said on NPR's Morning Edition.

So yesterday the DOT told oil carriers to avoid using DOT-111s "to the extent possible" – a very voluntary request. Compare that with Canada, which recently ordered the most dangerous DOT-111s off the rails within three months.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has also been very vocal on this issue, said that request wasn't enough, and she continued to push for a permanent ban on DOT-111s. Sen. Schumer said he believed Secretary Foxx is moving in that direction.

"I am hopeful that in the next month or two," Schumer said, "we will have a regulation that says to all the oil companies and all the railroads that, within a short amount of time, you have to take the dangerous cars off the rails, and either have them upgraded so they're safe, or put brand new tank cars on the rails to replace them."

Schumer said last month that two oil companies already agreed to retrofit their DOT-111s. And the company that runs the Port of Albany oil terminal says it will start to require oil deliveries from stronger hulled, safer takers, starting in June.

MF: So, let's just go back to the real question: Does this advance notice really make it safer if a train derails and oil spills?

The Cuomo administration says it's stepping up firefighter training for potential oil train disasters, In Albany yesterday and today, firefighters are doing drills at the Port of Albany, hosing foam at a simulated fuel-spill fire.

But some people are skeptical. Sandy Steubing of the community group People of Albany United for Safe Energy said first responders can't extinguish oil fires fast enough. In recent derailments including the one in Lynchburg, Virginia, firefighters let the fires burn out.

MF: So will this new DOT order help make these shipments safer?

DS: Really good question. Sen. Schumer said it will, that first responders have advanced techniques that are specific to different kinds of spills. Knowing what chemical or volatile liquid may have spilled would allow them to use that know-how.

But clearly, if there's an oil spill or explosion of almost any magnitude, something very bad has happened. And that's why the next thing to watch here is how hard the federal government cracks down on these substandard tanker cars and how quickly.

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