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Published: Friday, 1/24/2014

Tighter rules sought for trains

Cars filled with crude present safety concerns, officials say

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The National Transportation Safety Board and its Canadian counterpart on Thursday recommended tighter regulations on rail transport of crude oil, which has boomed on railroad lines through Toledo and elsewhere in recent years because of drilling in North Dakota and neighboring Canada.

The safety boards urged the Federal Railroad Administration and the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to:

● Foster expanded hazardous-materials route planning for railroads “to avoid populated and other sensitive areas.”

● Audit railroads’ preparedness to respond to major accidents.

● Check that petroleum products are properly classified on shipping documents.

The NTSB and Transportation Safety Board of Canada recommendations follow a Dec. 30 collision and derailment in Casselton, N.D., in which a grain train derailed and was struck by a loaded oil train, which also derailed and exploded.

No one was hurt in that incident or in an oil-train derailment Nov. 8 in Alabama, but 47 people were killed July 6 when an oil train parked atop a hill rolled away unattended, crashed on a curve in Lac-Megantic, Que., and exploded.

“If unit trains of flammable liquids are going to be part of our nation’s energy future, we need to make sure the hazardous materials classification is accurate, the route is well planned, and the tank cars are as robust as possible,” Deborah A.P. Hersman, the NTSB’s chairman, said in a statement.

All three accidents involved oil from North Dakota, a light-grade oil that is more explosive than most crudes. Investigators of the three crashes have questioned whether classifying such oil as merely “flammable” is appropriate and whether the tank cars used to haul it are safe enough.

Although no similar crashes have involved oil trains traveling through Toledo, that traffic is booming in Ohio and Michigan too. On a typical day, multiple trains hauling millions of gallons of North Dakota oil pass through Toledo on Norfolk Southern Corp. tracks, headed to East Coast terminals.

“I’m concerned, absolutely,” said Deputy Chief Thomas Jaksetic, head of the Toledo Fire Division’s Homeland Security and Special Operations Bureau. “Every time I see a train run by, I’m looking to see what it’s carrying.”

Especially worrisome to Chief Jaksetic, he said, is the potential for an oil-train accident to also involve other toxic materials or the contents of an entire train.

“There’s not a fire department in the world that can handle that,” he said.

Besides passing through Toledo, oil trains’ other regional routes include the CSX Transportation tracks through Defiance and Fostoria and an NS line through Montpelier, Ohio, and Adrian, over which Canadian Pacific Railway oil trains run. Such trains typically have 80 to 100 cars, each carrying as much as 30,000 gallons of crude.

According to the Association of American Railroads, early data suggest U.S. railroads moved more than 400,000 carloads of oil last year, up from only 9,500 carloads in 2008.

During the last decade or so, railroads have hauled trainloads of highly flammable ethanol after its rise as a pollution-control additive for gasoline as well as a primary fuel.

While newer tank cars have extra shielding on their ends to prevent their couplers from puncturing the tanks in a collision, many older cars that lack that shielding remain in use for oil and ethanol.

The Association of American Railroads issued a statement Thursday to support the recommendations.

“AAR is in full agreement with the safety boards’ recommendations today, as they align with our previous calls for increased federal tank car-safety standards as well as the work the industry is undertaking with our customers and the administration in an environment of shared responsibility for the safe movement of America’s energy products,” the association said.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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