Feds bark at – but don’t bite – explosive oil train cars

The News TribuneMay 11, 2014 

Workers clean up derailed tank cars May 1 in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia. Thirteen cars of a 105-car train came off the tracks the day before, spilling crude oil into the James River.


Once again, an oil train spill – this time in Lynchburg, Virginia – reminds us that dozens of communities in this state are at the mercy of loose federal rail regulations.

The spill in Virginia last week wasn’t a disaster on the order of the catastrophic explosion in Quebec last summer, which killed 47 Canadians. But the ingredients were the same: weak tanker cars filled with volatile crude oil, derailment, explosion and endangered people in the vicinity. In this case, fortunately, none of those people died.

Big, fiery spills have also occurred in North Dakota and Alabama in recent months. This story will be repeated – perhaps here – until the Obama administration demands that rail companies use safer tanker cars.

Mandatory is the key concept here. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation did react to the recent series of crude oil accidents, which it accurately described as “startling.” It ordered rail shippers to do something they should have been doing already: alerting states to the approach of trains carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation. Bakken petroleum has proven to be unusually volatile; it’s the common denominator in all the recent oil disasters.

But the alerts aren’t even a half-step. The Obama administration backed away from the single most important safety measure.

The spills have almost always resulted from the rupture of a structurally weak old tanker, the 1964-vintage DOT-111. Roughly 78,000 of these are now in service transporting crude around the country. Watch a locomotive hauling a long train of black cylindrical tanks; most are probably the cars that rip open and burn upon derailment.

The administration on Wednesday “advised” shippers and carriers not to carry the oil in the old DOT-111s. It’s strictly voluntary. What Transportation officials should have done is order that the oil be shifted – on a realistic but tight schedule – to modern, thick-walled tankers.

The rail industry downplays the risk. It likes to note that more than 99.9 percent of the country’s crude oil gets to its destination without mishap. But small risks get bigger when shipments are multiplied. An investigation by McClatchy Newspapers in January found that trains spilled more crude oil in 2013 than in all the years from 1975 through 2012.

Until recently, Washington’s refineries got their oil from Alaska, not overland trains. The North Dakota bonanza changed all that. Roughly 17 million barrels of crude oil moved by rail through this state last year. The volume is expected to triple this year.

We’d be more reassured about those numbers if we knew that the federal rail regulators were on our side, not the industry’s.

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