(Photo by Roy Luck via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Roy Luck via Creative Commons)

Oil-by-rail loophole keeps emergency spill plans in the dark

©2014 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Blake Sobczak

U.S. transportation officials don’t review how railroads would handle worst-case oil train disasters like last summer’s derailment in Quebec, which killed 47 people in a fiery explosion.

While railroads must keep “basic” emergency response plans in their own files, the Federal Railroad Administration does not monitor or review those plans.

That’s because railroads are required to provide “comprehensive” oil spill response plans to the FRA only if they use tank cars that hold more than 42,000 gallons of crude. In an April 10 letter responding to a Freedom of Information Act request from EnergyWire, FOIA officer Denise Kollehlon said the FRA’s files “do not contain any records related to the active comprehensive ‘oil spill prevention and response plans’ for oil shipments.”

Safety experts and environmentalists say the 42,000-gallon threshold is too high. They stress that the 1996 rule that set the limit never applies in practice. Just five tank cars nationwide are designed to store that much oil in a single packaging, officials say, and the FOIA response confirms that none are hauling crude (EnergyWire, Feb. 19).

The threshold predates the recent surge in oil-by-rail transport, which has seen annual crude shipments jump from fewer than 10,000 carloads in 2008 to 415,000 carloads last year, according to industry data.

Tim Pellerin, fire chief of Rangeley, Maine, said “tangible, realistic” emergency response plans could help firefighters, who often reach remote disaster sites before railroads’ own hazardous materials crews.

“There’s got to be a system in place that checks this and oversees [railroads] to make sure that there are plans in place,” he said in an interview.

Pellerin led a group of U.S. firefighters 60 miles north into Canada after a 72-car oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

The disaster claimed 47 lives and put hazardous materials safety on the map for U.S. and Canadian transportation regulators.

Later derailments and fires in Alabama and North Dakota in the United States and New Brunswick in Canada kept the issue in the spotlight, although they injured no one. Earlier this month, Pellerin called on lawmakers to provide more funding for first responders at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

Local fire departments can request hazardous materials shipping and emergency response information from railroads under voluntary industry standards. But picking out potential weak points in such plans “is an awful lot to expect from a small volunteer fire department with a $2,000-per-year budget,” Pellerin said, adding that his department lacks the specialized knowledge needed to gauge the adequacy of railroads’ response measures. “I’m not an expert in 10,000 things — I’m a fire chief,” he said.

The FRA, part of the Department of Transportation, did not respond to requests for comment, although it has previously said it is taking a “comprehensive approach to improving the safe transportation of crude oil by rail.” In February, the regulator reached a voluntary agreement with railroads to tighten oil train operating practices, lowering speed limits through urban areas and committing $5 million in industry funds to prepare first responders, among other measures.

Holly Arthur, spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, noted that railroads are also developing an inventory of oil spill emergency response resources under the terms of the agreement.

“This inventory will include locations for the staging of emergency response equipment and, where appropriate, contacts for the notification of communities,” Arthur said in an emailed statement yesterday. “When the inventory is completed [by July 1], railroads will provide DOT with information on the deployment of the resources and make the information available upon request to appropriate emergency responders.”

Emergency response ‘offloaded to local communities’

Safety officials have questioned whether voluntary arrangements go far enough to protect local communities.

Outgoing National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman wrote in a Jan. 23 letter to FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo that without closely regulated response plans, “[rail] carriers have effectively placed the burden of remediating the environmental consequences of an accident on local communities along their routes.”

Hersman reiterated her crude-by-rail concerns yesterday in her farewell address at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Crude-by-rail “can be a worst-case-scenario event, and we don’t have provisions in place to deal with it, either on the industry side or for the first responders,” she said.

Experts at the NTSB and Canada’s Transportation Safety Board agree that the magnitude of the Lac-Mégantic disaster swamped the small railroad’s response resources, which can include hazardous materials crews and specialized firefighting foam. The railroad involved in the July 6 crash — Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. — has since declared bankruptcy in the United States and Canada and is in the process of being taken over by the New York-based Fortress Investment Group (EnergyWire, Jan. 23).

“Railroads have for decades offloaded to local communities the responsibilities for emergency response,” said independent hazardous materials consultant Fred Millar, who has worked with environmental groups including Friends of the Earth.

Millar said he was not surprised by the fact that the FRA does not keep tabs on railroads’ oil spill response plans. “Nobody even has a measure of what would be an adequate emergency response capability,” he said.

By contrast, crude pipelines, storage facilities and waterborne oil tankers must comply with lengthier emergency response requirements laid out by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, U.S. EPA and U.S. Coast Guard, respectively.

The 1996 rules for oil-by-rail emergency response plans were crafted by the Research and Special Programs Administration, the precursor to PHMSA.

The agency said then that “on the basis of available information, no rail carrier is transporting oil in a quantity greater than 42,000 gallons in tank cars.”

NTSB has since questioned why the benchmark for comprehensive plans exists if it never actually applies. Officials at the Department of Transportation have until tomorrow to respond to NTSB’s criticisms.

“By limiting the comprehensive planning threshold for a single tank size that is greater than any currently in use, spill-planning regulations do not take into account the potential of a derailment of large numbers of 30,000-gallon tank cars, such as in Lac-Mégantic where 60 tank cars together released about 1.6 million gallons of crude oil,” NTSB’s Hersman wrote in her letter to PHMSA, also part of DOT.

In the wake of the Lac-Mégantic derailment, PHMSA has also faced pressure to update decades-old crude tank car rules. Critics say the outdated federal tank car standards and the FRA’s lack of oil spill emergency planning oversight point to the difficulty of keeping pace with the fast-growing crude-by-rail business.

The FRA and the railroad industry cite improving safety statistics, noting that more than 99.9 percent of all hazardous materials shipments reach their destination safely.

But despite declining accident rates over the past decade, regulatory consultant and attorney Paul Blackburn said, “citizens need to be concerned about … what happens over time.”

“After a big event like the Lac-Mégantic disaster, you’d expect the industry to be more cautious,” he said of recent voluntary safety measures. But “as these events fade from memory, there’s nothing to stop the industry from backing off on its commitment to improve spill response” barring federal action.

Reporter Mike Soraghan contributed.

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