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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Safety upgrades for rail tank cars coming much too slowly

Something to consider about the 30,000-gallon tank cars full of Bakken crude oil that regularly pass through Spokane: The oil industry says the “arbitrary, capricious” federal government must give it more time to make the cars safer.

The leaking tank cars in Mosier suggest otherwise.

As the oil-train derailment plays out in the small Oregon town along the Columbia River – a wreck that only luck prevented from being much worse – a lot of people are paying attention to how the government does, and does not, regulate these trains, and the ways in which the industry influences and delays the process.

It’s a complicated story with a lot of parts. But there is an instructive tale in one of those parts: the “crash worthiness” of tank cars – their ability to keep the oil inside when cars derail. Until 2011, the typical crude-oil tanker was a model designed in the 1960s and intended for general use; federal regulators deemed it unfit for hauling crude oil, but tens of thousands of them are still in use. A new standard was adopted by the industry five years ago, with thicker tank walls and headwalls, but this tank car has not prevented leaks in several derailments – including Mosier.

A year ago, the federal government issued new standards intended to improve the safety of “high-hazard flammable trains,” including requirements for safer tank cars and for upgrading older cars. The deadlines for retrofitting the old cars range from next year to 2025.

Too fast, the American Petroleum Industry says in its lawsuit.

Too slow, suggest the leaking tank cars in Mosier.

Oil trains rumble through Spokane all the time – about 19 a week. The train that crashed in Mosier, with 13 tank cars off the rails, was one of them.

Imagine what 13 derailed crude oil tank cars would look like in downtown Spokane. Imagine four burning tankers, and 42,000 gallons of crude. Imagine worse – the 2013 derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people. The railroad industry points to its safety record in percentage terms – a “safety record” of better than 99 percent – but that is cold comfort for the people along the rail lines when the percentages don’t play out.

The painfully slow regulatory and industry response stands in sharp contrast to the urgency of the problem. In a piece written last February, Popular Mechanics concluded, “Rather than relying on insufficiently beefed-up old-style tankers – which, when first created, were not designed for crude oil anyway – America needs a crude oil tanker that will not puncture in a crash. It’s more important now than ever: Since 2005, thanks to a glut of oil production, the U.S. has seen a 400 percent increase in crude oil transportation. And that number looks to be rising.”

How have the industry and federal government worked to make the transportation of this crude safe? How have they attempted to ensure that tanks don’t leak if they derail?

Very, very slowly. Think of it as a story in three acts: The old cars, the new cars and the federal standards.

Act 1: Until five years ago, a general-purpose tank car known as the DOT-111 was the go-to vessel for hauling crude oil in North America. The DOT-111, designed in the 1960s, is a general-purpose car, not designed for flammable loads – its other uses included hauling corn syrup.

DOT-111 cars were involved in some of the worst derailments in recent years, including the July 2013 crash in Quebec that killed 47 people, and the December 2013 wreck that spilled 400,000 gallons of crude in Casselton, North Dakota.

The vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Christopher Hart, said, “Their continued use to ship flammable liquids poses an unacceptable risk to the public.” Hart said this in 2013. The NTSB first warned that DOT-111 cars were too thin-skinned for flammable materials in 1991.

The Association of American Railroads estimates that there are about 92,000 DOT-111 cars in service. Eighty percent of these cars do not meet the voluntary industry standards adopted in 2011.

Act II: As a federal regulatory process dragged on, the railroad association adopted its own standards for safer tank cars in 2011 – called the CPC-1232s. These cars were slightly thicker in the tank walls, and included other upgrades. Popular Mechanics described them as “insufficiently beefed-up” versions of the old tankers.

By last year, there were roughly 60,000 CPC-1232 tankers hauling crude in North America, the AAR says.

But these new cars – called “the workhorses of the soaring crude-by-rail industry” by the Wall Street Journal – have not prevented ruptures and leaks during several crashes, including derailments in West Virginia, Illinois and Canada last year.

The 13 tanks that derailed in Mosier were CPC-1232s. Four caught fire. Four leaked 42,000 gallons of crude.

Act III: A seemingly interminable regulatory process concluded last May when DOT issued new federal standards for hauling hazardous, flammable loads. These standards – which aligned very closely with recommendations from the industry – require slightly thicker tank walls and other improvements.

These new standards will apply to all new rail cars. Older cars must be brought up to the new standards according to a schedule the DOT established: The deadlines range from 2018 for certain DOT-111 cars to 2025 for certain CPC-1232 cars.

The API has sued the federal government, objecting not to the rules themselves, but the speed at which they must be implemented.

Meanwhile, the trains roll on, hauling the Bakken crude across North America – and through Spokane. A month ago, a blogger for the Benicia Independent – a website that tracks the rail industry – reported that the AAR estimates 225 tanker cars have been retrofitted to the new standards, out of an estimated 110,000 that will need it.

At that rate, they’ll be done in a mere 489 years.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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