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New federal rules fail to calm worries about oil-train safety

Delaware Public Media

New federal regulations designed to improve the safety of oil trains may be a step in the right direction but they don’t necessarily help Sally Milbury-Steen feel more comfortable about living 100 yards from the tracks.

Milbury-Steen says five or six of the black-clad behemoths rumble by her Newark house every day en route to and from Delaware City Refinery, and she welcomes the U.S. Transportation Department’s move to make them less prone to catastrophic explosions but she’s not convinced that the new rules are going to make a difference any time soon.

“They are certainly an improvement,” she said, referring to the rules to increase the oil cars’ resistance to fire. “But it’s going to take them a while to come in, and we’ve seen a lot of problems. You never know which train is going to be the one that might have some troubles.”

Milbury-Steen, 73, said she has been living in the same house near the former Chrysler Plant at Newark since 1986 and is used to trains of all kinds passing by but has been struck by the recent increase in the number of long trains hauling crude from North Dakota, and worries about their safety in light of a recent series of high-profile derailments and explosions.

Even though the federal government has now stepped up its efforts to prevent an oil-train disaster, people like Milbury-Steen are focused on how to respond if such an incident occurs.

“I would like to know that the emergency management people and the refinery people are really working with the local fire companies and police to have some first responders in the community if something happens,” she said.

Among the new measures, published on May 1, the DOT imposed a 50 mile-per-hour national limit on all trains classified as “high-hazard flammable trains”, and 40 mph in what it deems high-threat urban areas for any trains hauling rail cars that do not meet the new standards. The DOT defines high-hazard flammable trains as “a continuous block of 20 or more tank cars loaded with a flammable liquid or 35 or more tank cars loaded with a flammable liquid dispersed through a train.”

The rules require railroads to phase out within three years the older DOT 111 model of tank cars that have been involved in a number of derailments, and to replace them with cars that have thicker 9/16-inch shells, thermal protection, improved pressure-relief valves, and bottom outlet valves. Existing cars must be retrofitted to the same standard, the DOT said.

By 2021, railroads must also install electronic braking systems on all trains consisting of 70 or more tank cars, to reduce the risk of car-pileups in an accident, the agency said.

And in an effort to address concerns that local authorities are not given sufficient information about oil-train movements to plan for emergencies, the DOT directed railroads to provide state and local officials with a “point of contact” who will supply information about the routing of hazardous materials such as crude oil through their towns and cities.

State Rep. Ed Osienski, (D-Newark) who has called for tougher safety standards for the trains, cautiously welcomed the measures, saying they would lessen the chances of a catastrophic explosion in the event of a derailment.

He said the thicker shells, relief valves, and thermal jackets that will be required for the oil cars when the rules are fully implemented will all lessen the chances of an explosion like the one that killed 47 people in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic when a runaway train ignited in July 2013.

The changes are designed to prevent the crude heating up if there’s a derailment, he said.

“These are all good regulations,” said Osienski, who has joined with other state lawmakers to urge Delaware’s Congressional delegation to support federal legislation to make the trains safer.

But he said the regulations do not address track conditions, which are a common cause of derailments, and he criticized regulators for a slow response to the sharp national increase in the shipment of crude by rail since 2013.

“I’m disappointed that they took so long,” he said.

Osienski also noted that the new regulations do not address the high volatility of the North Dakotan crude carried by the trains, which has contributed to a series of  explosions that this year have included one in Galena, Illinois, and another in Mount Carbon, West Virginia.

“You are seeing improvements in the regs for the railcars but they haven’t really addressed how they can make the product less volatile,” he said.

Still, he said the trains are “very unlikely” to derail in Delaware on their journey between a Maryland Amtrak line and Delaware City Refinery because they travel at only 30 mph along that stretch of track, which is owned by the freight railroad company, Norfolk Southern, Osienski said.

“In Delaware, at those low speeds, the rails are probably in good enough shape,” he said.

Norfolk Southern did not respond to a request for comment.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the new rules represent a “significant improvement” over current regulations, but some environmental groups said the changes still don’t do enough to protect the public.

“The final rule confirms what many suspected – it is business as usual for the crude-by-rail industry,” said Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Clean Water Action, in a joint statement. “DOT seems more concerned about slowing rail commerce than ensuring that oil trains get to their destination safely.”

Critics of the booming crude-by-rail industry say the risk of derailment threatens public safety, especially in densely populated areas, and they note that the trains are not subject to local control because the rail industry is federally regulated.

Towns and cities such as Newark have no oversight of the speed, frequency or nature of the oil trains that pass through their neighborhoods. And in fact, it is the railroads themselves that are mostly responsible for ensuring that the tracks are safe.

Tracks carrying passengers or hazardous materials such as crude oil must be inspected by the railroads at least twice a week, according to rules set by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

But the FRA itself inspects track much less frequently, and audits the railroads’ own inspections only about once a year, according to FRA spokesman Mike England.

England acknowledged that the infrequency of the audits means the agency might be unaware of any track defects found by the railroads until months after faults are found. But he argued that the railroads have a powerful financial incentive to ensure the integrity of their tracks.

Margrit Hadden, a Newark City Councilwoman, said she is concerned about the proximity of the oil trains to Newark neighborhoods, and worries about Amtrak trains speeding past the rail yards where oil trains park.

“It’s frightening to me,” she told Delaware Public Media. “Some of the homes are so close that the children could be playing in the shadow of these parked cars.”

She said she would like to see the rail yard configured in a way that allows the high-speed Amtrak trains to pass at a greater distance from the oil trains than they do at present, and for a safety barrier to be built between the rail yard and the neighborhood.

Authorities should also relocate supplies of emergency foam that would be used to fight any oil fire closer to the Newark rail yard from its current location in Middletown some 20 minutes away, she said.

Hadden said she has met with representatives of Norfolk Southern, as well as with first responders and officials from the Delaware Emergency Management Agency at a public safety information session.

“You shouldn’t wait to have an incident to be prepared,” she said. “We should be proactive and do everything we can to make that rail yard safe. I don’t feel that we have done everything we can to do that.”

Asked whether she trusted the railroads to police themselves, Hadden replied that she has been in touch with Norfolk Southern but not with CSX, another major hauler of crude-oil trains in the eastern U.S. “It depends on the railroad,” she said. “I need to build a relationship with both of them. I would like to have that conversation with them to find out what they’re doing.” 

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
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