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Federal Transportation Agency Issues Emergency Orders On Crude Oil Trains, Local Advocates Say Weak

Harvey Henkelmann/Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday issued two “emergency actions” targeting the safety of crude oil shipment by rail.

The federal agency issued anemergency order that requires all railroads that ship large amounts of Bakken crude oil to notify state emergency management officials about the operation of those trains through their states. The agency also issued a safety advisory asking railroads to use tank cars “...with the highest level of integrity...” and to avoid using the older DOT-111 tanks cars. Those models are easily punctured or ruptured in accidents, even at slow speeds.  Advocates in New York concerned about the increasing number of shipments say the federal action is a good first step, but much stronger moves are needed.
Riverkeeper Hudson River Program Director Philip Musegaas says they remain concerned about what the U.S. Department of Transportation emergency actions fail to do.  “It does not relieve the burden. It actually keeps putting the burden on local first responders and on the state to be prepared for potentially catastrophic accidents involving these hundred car crude oil trains. I think it makes perfect sense for the DOT to require the rail shippers to prepare emergency plans. They do this for marine shipping of crude oil. Each ship has to have its own spill response plan. There’s no reason why a train carrying two or three million gallons of oil should not be required to do the same thing. The other concern is that this does nothing to improve prevention of an accident.”

The DOT admonishes shippers to use the safest cars in their fleet, but does not require ceasing use of the DOT-111 tankers. Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth says even the improved tanker cars are not that much safer when hauling Bakken crude.  “Even the next step up from the DOT-111's still has a number of safety problems when dealing with very flammable crude oil in a derailment situation. There are alternative methods for shipping this crude oil.  They could begin to build pipelines. They could not use certain rail routes. For example the Montreal to Albany rail route, the federal government could just simply ban that particular route from being used to ship crude oil.”

Retired railroad machinist and past president of the Selkirk Machinist Union Local and founding member of Railroad Workers’ United Jon Flanders doubts the railroads will pay much attention to the DOT’s action since most is based on voluntary compliance. He notes that railroads have hauled hazardous materials for years and real problems are not being addressed.  “The infrastructure and maintenance issues are, I think, really behind it. Is anybody talking about the fact that they would like to do away with another crew member on a mile-long train packed with oil? What about the weight of the oil cars on the tracks and the damage it does to tracks? Heavy trains, long trains. They’re pushing for longer trains. All these things are issues. I doubt that any tank car, even the new ones with higher specs, is going to hold up that well if it’s going fifty miles an hour down the tracks and goes off the tracks.”

Friday evening Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace will hold a forum at the Bethlehem Public Library called “Derailing a Disaster in Albany” to discuss the issues related to the shipment of Bakken crude in the region.

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