April 10, 2014 in City

Lawmakers scrutinize oil train safety standards

Matt Kalish Correspondent
Associated Press photo

This July file photo provided by Surete du Quebec via the Canadian Press shows wrecked oil tankers and debris from a runaway train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Several oil train accidents, including one in Quebec, have highlighted the explosive properties of crude coming from booming oil shale fields on the Northern Plains.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – The federal bureaucracy’s inability to remove substandard oilcars carrying volatile crude off railroad tracks continues to frustrate U.S. lawmakers.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx tried to put the onus on the oil companies that ship crude from North Dakota, telling a Senate panel Wednesday they aren’t providing enough information about what’s in the highly flammable oil.

“We still would like to have more data from the shippers,” Foxx said. “It all starts with knowing what we’re transporting.”

That wasn’t good enough for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who said the department needs to speed up the process and raise safety standards.

“Our current regulations were written long before anybody could imagine how much oil would move over rail,” Murray said. “Changes to tank car design are long overdue.”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said it’s critical the new regulations come out as the United States will always transport oil by rail, even if new pipelines are built.

Murray asked Foxx and National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman why railroads don’t have to file disaster plans like owners of oil pipelines and oil tankers. Hersman, who’s led the NTSB since 2004, said she didn’t know why.

“It makes absolutely no sense when we essentially have in essence a moving pipeline,” Hersman said. “Pipelines and the marine industry have done this for years.”

Officials in Olympia and the Inland Northwest are growing concerned with the lack of action, according to a memo made public Tuesday.

The state Ecology Department and other state agencies are skeptical railroads could adequately respond to an oil train derailment, said the memo to the Washington congressional delegation and Gov. Jay Inslee.

“The recent number of spills and incidents in other states and provinces suggests existing plans are inadequate,” the state agencies said. “The region currently lacks adequate prevention and preparedness planning along the inland rail corridors.”

The Spokane City Council called on state and federal regulators to step up their scrutiny of the railroads in February and fire officials briefed the Spokane Valley City Council on the issue in late March.

Matt Kalish, a student in the University of Missouri Journalism School’s Washington, D.C., Reporting Program, serves as a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review.

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