Rockefeller asks Obama to speed up crude oil tank car upgrades


McClatchy Washington Bureau

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., asked President Barack Obama on Monday to use his executive power to make immediate improvements to the safety of tank cars carrying crude oil.

In a letter to the president, Rockefeller said the federal government has been “slow to react” to gaps in safety standards following a series of fiery derailments in the past year.

“Mr. President, we cannot wait for another devastating derailment and explosion to happen here that will force us into action,” he wrote Obama. “The time to act is now.”

A year ago Sunday, a trainload of crude oil from North Dakota derailed and ignited in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying the center of the small lakeside town.

Subsequent derailments across North America, though none fatal, revealed gaps in rail safety and emergency response, and highlighted the vulnerability of the tank cars used to transport the oil.

Rockefeller’s letter tapped into the frustration of many state and local officials and members of Congress over the pace with which the U.S. Department of Transportation has responded.

Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, held a hearing in March in which officials from DOT and the rail and petroleum industries testified.

The White House Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing a set of new regulations for tank car design and rail operations, but it could be months before the rules are in place.

Meanwhile, domestic oil production continues to increase. The country produced 8.4 million barrels a day in April, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Just two states, Texas and North Dakota, account for half that amount, largely thanks to hydraulic fracturing of shale rock. Much of the oil has been moving by rail to destinations not reached directly by pipelines.

But it’s been moving in a fleet of minimally reinforced tank cars with a long record of failure in derailments involving a range of flammable and hazardous materials. The problems took on a new dimension a decade ago when railroads began moving large quantities of ethanol, prompting the rail industry to petition DOT for better tank cars.

The industry voluntarily adopted its own more stringent design in 2011, but those cars have also proved inadequate. One such car ruptured in an April 30 derailment in Lynchburg, Va., spilling about 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude into the James River.

Though Rockefeller acknowledged that DOT had taken several steps, working with the railroad industry and petroleum producers, to improve the safety of crude oil shipments, he pressed the president for “significant” regulatory changes and improved oversight.

“The safety and well-being of the public depends on it,” Rockefeller wrote.

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