Rail oil shipments on radar of outgoing NTSB chief

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – The outgoing chair of the National Transportation Safety Board has some strong words for the rail industry and the way certain hazardous liquid is transported.

The strong remarks are tied to older model rail tank cars known as DOT-111s, which carry crude oil and ethanol through cities across the U.S. and Canada, including right here in Western New York.

During a question and answer session Monday, Deborah Hersman told an audience that DOT-111 tank cars are not safe enough to carry hazardous liquids. In fact, Hersman says her agency issued recommendations several years ago.

“We said they either need to remove or retrofit these cars if they’re going to continue to carry hazardous liquids,” she said.

And while Hersman says the industry agrees, and is working voluntarily to improve tank car designs, she says more needs to be done.

“We’ve got to get on top of it,” she told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

Hersman says regulators are behind the curve. She says the transport of ethanol and crude began ramping up in 2005, and that those shipments have increased by over 440 percent in the intervening years.

“But our regulations have not changed,” Hersman said. “You now have an entire train of a hundred cars carrying millions of gallons of this hazardous liquid coming through many communities.”

For months News 4 has been investigating crude oil and other hazardous materials traveling by rail. We discovered that hundreds of tank cars carrying flammable liquid role through the Buffalo region every day.

In February, Senator Charles Schumer expressed concern during an interview with News 4.

“Thank God we don’t have a major derailment or oil spill every day. But the number is going to grow and we have to get a step ahead of safety,” Schumer said.

Local first responders had a close call in December when tank cars derailed, but did not leak, in a Cheektowaga rail yard.

Erie County Emergency Services Commissioner Daniel Neaverth Jr. says hazmat crews in Western New York are prepared to respond to all types of events. But he says the question becomes what is the magnitude of the event.

“Is it one or two cars? Is it a hundred cars? And then how do you go about accomplishing what needs to be done which is life safety and property preservation,” he said.

Last month state and federal inspectors examined tank cars for mechanical problems at local rail yards in the wake of a number of accidents in the U.S. and Canada, including a deadly train incident in Quebec last summer that claimed nearly 50 lives.

The outgoing NTSB chair believes that communities are not prepared to respond to a worst-case scenario.

“We don’t have provisions in place of how to deal with it, either on the industry side or for the first responders,” according to Hersman.

Neaverth says first responder training set for this summer will likely be enhanced to deal with new concerns about the transportation of crude and ethanol via rail.

“I’m guessing it’s something that is a direct result of people asking a lot of questions and there being some concern with regards to responding to these,” he said.

A December train derailment in North Dakota clearly highlights concerns about shipping crude by rail. The derailment and explosion prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue a safety alert in early January that warns about the potential high volatility of crude from the Bakken region in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota.

“Recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil,” the alert states.

The Bakken region is one of the most active oil fields in the U.S., producing almost a million barrels a day.

The National Transportation Safety Board is holding a forum this week on rail safety, specific to the transportation of crude oil and ethanol. Researchers, crude oil and ethanol shippers, tank car builders, railroad carriers, emergency responders, and federal regulatory agencies were invited to discuss the issue.

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