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Sept. 20, 2021

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Feds issue new oil train safety policy

Rule aims to have crews, equipment ready in event of tank car accident

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Federal transportation officials are requiring railroads to establish regional response teams along oil train routes following a series of fiery derailments.

The new rule announced Thursday is aimed at having crews and equipment ready in the event of an accident. It applies to oil trains in continuous blocks of 20 or more loaded tank cars and those having 35 loaded tank cars.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued the rule in coordination with the Federal Railroad Administration. The pipeline safety agency said a review identified challenges that occurred during previous responses to derailments.

“This final rule is necessary due to expansion in U.S. energy production having led to significant challenges for the country’s transportation system,” the agency said.

In 2014, the agency issued a report detailing the concerns of fire chiefs and emergency management officials in oil train accidents, including that emergency responders were not fully aware of resources available from railroads and other organizations that would be helpful in preparing for such disasters.

Local Angle

BNSF says new rules will have little effect here

Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF, said while the company intends to comply with newly announced rules from the U.S. Department of Transportation mandating railroads establish regional emergency response teams for oil trains, they probably won’t have a large effect on the railroad’s operations in Washington.

The railroad, Melonas said, already follows the state’s rail safety rules, which are more stringent than the federal government’s rules.

“Safeguards are in place, and we will comply with these requirements as well,” he said.

BNSF has a Vancouver-based response team, and all of its oil and freight trains carry positive train control safety systems, he said.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called the change progress but only incremental.

“The rules announced today by the Department of Transportation represent a small step forward, but we still have much bigger issues that have not been addressed,” she said in a news release.

— Andy Matarrese

Rail carriers now will be required to provide information about oil trains to state and tribal emergency response agencies and identify someone to oversee each response zone along with organizations, crews and equipment that would be used in a “worst-case discharge.”

Environmentally sensitive areas along the route must be identified, along with the location where the response team will deploy and the location and description of equipment. A railroad must indicate whether information should be exempt from public disclosure due to security or proprietary concerns.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement the rule “will make the transport of energy products by railroad safer.”

The greatest share of oil now moved by the nation’s 140,000-mile freight rail network goes from the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana to the West Coast.

In 2013, a runaway train carrying crude oil from North Dakota derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and exploded, killing 47 people. Other fiery crashes and spills have occurred in Alabama, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Virginia, West Virginia and elsewhere.

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