The U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday issued an emergency order immediately requiring all railroads operating unit trains of 35 cars or more containing Bakken crude oil to notify State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs) about the operation of these trains through their states.
Additionally, DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety advisory strongly urging those shipping or offering Bakken crude oil to use tank car designs with the highest level of structural integrity available in their fleets. The agencies also advised companies to avoid the use of older legacy DOT 111 or CTC 111 tank cars for the shipment of Bakken crude oil because of their thin skins that can lead to ruptures in derailments.
The actions follow a series of high-profile railroad accidents that have resulted in the release of large quantities of crude oil produced from the Bakken region of the Williston Basin of North Dakota. The energy and railroad industries have been surprised by the volatility of the Bakken crude, which has led to fiery explosions in many cases. The most recent incident occurred a week ago, when a CSX Transportation train consisting of 105 tank cars derailed in Lynchburg, Va. Seventeen cars jumped the track and one was breached and caught on fire. Three tank cars fell into the adjacent James River and spilled up to 30,000 gallons of petroleum.
The U.S. action comes two weeks after the Canadian government took several safety measures, including an immediate ban on the use of the least crash-resistant DOT 111 cars for moving hazardous material and phasing out older model cars within three years in favor of ones with new designs incorporating thicker shells and head shields.
"The safety of our nation’s railroad system, and the people who live along rail corridors is of paramount concern,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “All options are on the table when it comes to improving the safe transportation of crude oil, and today’s actions, the latest in a series that make up an expansive strategy, will ensure that communities are more informed and that companies are using the strongest possible tank cars.”
The notification to state officials must include estimated volumes of Bakken crude oil being transported, frequencies of anticipated train traffic and the route through which the oil will be transported. The emergency order also requires the railroads provide contact information for at least one responsible party at the host railroads to the SERCs, who are expected to share the information with appropriate emergency responders in affected communities.
The DOT has taken more than a dozen actions to ensure safe transport of crude oil during the past 10 months, but accidents continue to occur and critics say more drastic steps are needed. Regulators have stepped up enforcement of shippers to verify that crude oil is being properly classified, conducted more inspections and issued other safety advisories, alerts and guidance. The DOT in February also convinced railroads to take several voluntary precautions such as reducing speeds, increasing inspections, using new brake technology and investing in first-responder training.
Last week, the DOT reportedly sent a rulemaking to the White House for review that sets stricter design standards for tank cars.