WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) called for stronger federal action – beyond a recent voluntary safety agreement with the rail industry – to protect communities in Washington state and elsewhere from oil train accidents such as a fiery derailment in Quebec last year that killed 47 people.
During a hearing on rail safety before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Cantwell also pressed an oil industry representative on when the industry plans to phase out older tank cars used to haul highly-flammable Bakken crude oil. The “DOT-111” poses a higher safety risk than newer cars, whose hulls are less likely to puncture in the case of a derailment. About 80,000 of these older, less safe cars currently are in use. Under questioning, the oil industry representative said there are plans to phase out 60 percent of the older tank cars by the end of 2015.
“When people look at this issue for Washington state, they see the volatility of this product moving through major population centers — not one, but every population center in our state ,” Cantwell said during today’s hearing. “That’s why our state is very anxious about this.”
Washington state is the fifth-largest refining state in the U.S. and a destination for increasing quantities of crude-by-rail from North Dakota shale fields. Trains haul Bakken crude daily through Washington state – passing through Spokane, Vancouver, Seattle and other cities. Recent high-profile rail accidents in North America have prompted Washington state lawmakers to propose legislation and city councils in Spokane and Bellingham to pass resolutions calling for stronger federal oversight. The Seattle City Council is also considering a resolution to request companies restrict shipments through the city until further study.
“We’ve gone from four years ago – having basically nothing on rail by crude – to now having something like 408,000 carloads of crude,” Cantwell said. “Knowing when those [DOT-111] cars are going to be off those rails – these cars that the National Transportation Safety Board has already said are unacceptable — this is a key issue for me and for my state.”
Regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) are working to improve standards for the DOT-111 tank cars. The standards are more than a year behind, though, and the agency doesn’t anticipate issuing a final rule until early next year.
Railroads own less than one percent of railcars themselves. In many cases, they are owned by leasing companies or oil shippers. Prentiss Searles, testifying today on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute, told Cantwell that the oil industry plans to replace 40 percent of the DOT-111 fleet with stronger cars by the end of 2014, and 60 percent by the end of 2015.
Speaking to the rail industry, Cantwell asked, “when you have a voluntary system, not everybody complies with it; what do you do about that? Even when people sign a voluntary agreement and then have a violation, is there a penalty?”
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced in February a voluntary agreement under which the rail industry would improve the safety of crude oil trains by increasing track inspections, lowering speeds to 40 mph through urban areas for trains carrying older DOT-111 tank cars, installing new technology, and investing in $5 million for specialized training for first responders. But the agreement is voluntary, so violators could not be fined or otherwise held accountable under federal law.
Below is a full transcript of Cantwell’s discussion with Prentiss Searles, Marketing Issues Manager, Downstream, American Petroleum Institute.
Senator Cantwell: Thank you, Chairman. Thank you for holding the hearing. Thank you for the witnesses that are here and everybody that is working on this issue and for your voluntary efforts to date. I’m glad my colleagues from North Dakota are here, because I know you see this issue from the perspective of your state. But I want you to understand the perspective of our state – because practically every newspaper in our state has editorialized on this.
The state legislature is considering legislation, the city of Seattle is considering legislation. The issue is that as this rail transports into our state from Spokane down to Pasco through the Columbia Gorge – to say nothing of the treachery in the unique environmental aspects of the Columbia Gorge – then through Vancouver, then up to Tacoma, and perhaps on through Seattle, through Everett, up to Skagit Country for processing. You hit every population area in our state. We’re talking about population areas, three of them, that are larger than your whole state.
We’re talking about waterfronts that are integrated with ferry systems – highly active waterfronts. So when people look at this issue for us they see the volatility of this product moving through major population centers. Not one, but every population center in our state save a few. That’s why our state is very anxious about this and that’s why, Mr. Chairman, I agree. I don’t personally think that this is an issue about voluntary – although we appreciate voluntary. I think, to protect our citizens, we have to be clear about what it is we’re willing to do.
I first have a question for Mr. Searles about the Department of Transportation (DOT) -111 issues that Mr. Hart has basically said are an unacceptable public risk. That’s what the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has said – right now they’re unacceptable. So, my question is when are the companies committed to ending the use of these cars?
Mr. Searles: Thank you for the question, Senator. The first thing that we’ve done is we stepped in and we developed – over a three-year period. The upgraded tank car standards. So these are the CPC-1232 standard and that took three years to go in and look at all of the data that was required to understand the best approach that could be taken to make these cars safer. The industry concluded with consensus on that.
And in the review of that consensus standard, the DOT led the review to determine whether or not we were going to have sufficient improvements there. And the conclusion was that we did. Thus we petitioned the federal government to make the CPC-1232 the new standard. All of that was data driven. Since that time, we have been building that tank car to the point that we have 40 percent of the fleet this year will be the new tank car and 60 percent by the end of 2015. So we have been leaning forward beyond what the DOT requirements were and are today. And believe that those tank cars will be sufficient to be able to move the tank car, to be able to move the product from here forward.
Senator Cantwell: So what year will all of them be off our rails?
Mr. Searles: We’re looking at the tank cars that were manufactured before the new standards came out. In fact in our comments to the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM), we asked for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to lead a task force to review that. Since that time, we have been looking at the requirements to determine if retrofits are possible and whether or not there are meaningful improvements to those tank cars that can be made.
Senator Cantwell: Since we’ve gone from four years ago – having basically nothing by rail on crude – to now having something like 408,000 carloads of crude. So about 11 trains per day, to our population centers, this is a big deal. Knowing when those cars that are going to be off those rails that NTSB has already said are unacceptable – Mr. Chairman, this is a key issue for me and for my state.
I know I only have 30 seconds left. I would just say that I don’t know when you have a voluntary system, not everybody complies with it; what do you do about that? Even when people sign a voluntary agreement and then have a violation, is there a penalty? Is there a risk against that in stopping that behavior?
Mr. Chairman, I think I’m more in the boat of you. I think we have to mandate the security that needs to be there because these population centers are just too – I don’t know what our cities and jurisdictions are going to do. They might just decide to ban this all together. I think we – you have to prove that the public is going to be safe here. I’m out of time and we haven’t even gotten to this issue of highly flammable material. Maybe somebody can tell me what safety precautions are going to be made in the future to change Bakken oil into a transportable product that is not as flammable. Thank you Mr. Chairman.