Eric Andseron | Times-Union
ALBANY — Proposed regulations announced Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation to toughen safety standards governing crude oil, ethanol and other volatile materials wouldn’t initially cover the type of Bakken crude that exploded and burned a year ago in Quebec.
A runaway train careened off the rails in downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last July, exploding and killing nearly four dozen people and incinerating much of the community’s downtown.
That and several subsequent derailments and explosions raised safety concerns about shipping crude from North Dakota’s Bakken shale fields by rail.
The federal DOT on Wednesday proposed new rules intended to make the shipment of crude oil by rail safer, with slower oil train speeds through urban areas, phase-out or retrofit within two years of the oldest, least-safe tank cars used to carry Bakken crude, and a risk assessment of the routes Bakken crude trains use to reach refineries, ports and other destinations.
Tests by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board after last summer’s crash indicated the crude was incorrectly classified in a less volatile category than it should have been. But even the more volatile category won’t initially be covered by the new regulations.
“Given the urgency of the safety issues involved, I currently have no intention of extending it,” Foxx told reporters.
The standards won’t take effect until Oct. 1, 2015, with the deadline for railroads to carry the most volatile crude in the older DOT-111 cars not until Oct. 1, 2017, more than three years from now. The type of crude involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster could be carried on the least-safe DOT-111 tank cars until Oct. 1, 2018.
“An immediate ban on shipping volatile crude in the DOT-111 tank cars is in order,” said Patti Goldman, an attorney with the pro-environment group Earthjustice. “That’s why we and our partners have called for an emergency ban of this type of outdated, accident-prone rail car.”
The volume of Bakken crude being shipped from North Dakota oil fields by rail has jumped over the past five years. Foxx said 9,500 tank carloads of crude were shipped in 2008; it grew to 415,000 last year. As much as a quarter of all Bakken crude flows through the Port of Albany, where it is transferred to barges, tankers and other trains for delivery to East Coast refineries.
The proposal’s options include limiting oil trains to 40 mph everywhere, or in urban areas of more than 100,000 population, or in the more limited number of so-called high-risk urban areas, as determined by the Department of Homeland Security. The last option wouldn’t include the Capital Region.
Currently, Canadian Pacific limits its oil trains to 25 mph in urban areas of the Capital Region. CSX oil trains are limited to top speeds of 50 mph.
Three options for new tank car standards also are being proposed, including one that would keep in place those the Association of American Railroads voluntarily adopted in 2011.
“There’s never a ban for trains that have fewer than 20 cars with hazardous materials,” Goldman said.
The new rules will apply to trains carrying 20 or more tank cars. In the Capital Region, trains of as many as 120 tank cars are common.
Subsequent tests have confirmed the risks the oil poses to communities through which the oil trains pass.
“Bakken crude oil is on the high end of volatility compared to other crude oils,” Foxx said.
Federal investigators also found instances in which Bakken crude was being classified incorrectly as being less risky.
“We did find there was improper classification, and we issued fines,” Foxx said, although he didn’t identify the companies cited.
Asked whether the Bakken crude could be stabilized before it’s shipped, Foxx said the refining infrastructure needed to do that “is not as present in North Dakota.”
“We are open to industry providing more refinement in this area,” he added.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who has been pushing for safer transport of crude and other volatile cargoes, called for the tougher standards to be implemented “as soon as possible.”
“These desperately needed safety regulations will phase out the aged and explosion-prone DOT-111 tanker cars that are hauling endless streams of highly flammable crude oil through communities across the country and in New York, Schumer said. “Safety is job number one, and the DOT should be commended for heeding our call and including a package of commonsense safety measures — like speed limits, new braking controls and standards for a safer tank car — that will further safeguard communities along freight lines.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who earlier this year had state agencies compile a list of steps to reduce the risks oil trains pose, said state officials would review the federal rule proposals to “ensure they address the critical deficiencies that New York state identified.”