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Near Disaster in Lynchburg

May 6th, 2014

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama enthusiastically said, “American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years. That’s right, eight years. Not only that, last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past 16 years.”

Unfortunately for the American people, the federal government is more concerned with the destination rather than the journey to energy independence.

Since 2005, transportation of oil by rail has increased 400 percent, and as we learned at the National Transportation Safety Board’s forum on rail safety and the transportation of crude oil, the federal government has been caught flat-footed with regard to the safe transport of oil.

On Wednesday, yet another train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Lynchburg. This is after the recent derailments and explosions in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Mègantic, Canada, which left 47 people dead.

The lack of preparedness and transparency our government has displayed is frightening. The safety problems with the transport of oil by rail are myriad.

First, the tank cars that transport the majority of the oil, the DOT-111, are woefully inadequate. They are prone to puncture and cannot withstand derailments that involve pileups or multiple car-to-car impacts. What is frustrating is that the NTSB issued a safety study in 1991 on the problems with the DOT-111, and no action was taken.

In contrast, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board made recommendations in January 2014 stemming from the fatal Lac-Mègantic accident. Just four months later, Canadian government is phasing out DOT-111 tank cars. The U.S. Department of Transportation is scheduled to release new rules , but as the Lynchburg derailment shows, it is embarrassingly late.

In January, we learned that crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation is more combustible than traditional crude oil after USDOT issued a safety alert.

Why wasn’t this alert issued earlier? After all, the volatility of crude is measured before it is loaded into tank cars. These measurements need to be subject to more aggressive government oversight . It is maddening that DOT is issuing tombstone safety alerts and reacting to the changing transportation landscape instead of acting.

The high volatility of Bakken crude is problematic because railroads often flow through cities and other high consequence areas. We saw the magnitude of destruction a derailment can have in Lac-Megantic, which has a population of about 6,000.

In February, the U.S. rail industry agreed to voluntary safety measures that included lowering the speed limit to 40 mph when traveling in metropolitan areas. This is not enough.

The maximum speed for trains transporting crude oil should be limited to 20 mph, or the equivalent of school speed zones for all vehicles, when operating through all communities until the crashworthiness of DOT-111 tank cars is substantially improved. All communities, not just urban areas, have schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, and environmentally sensitive areas are being exposed to unnecessary risk.

A serious concern for communities near tracks is that the contents of the tankers rolling through their backyards and the routes the trains take are shrouded in secrecy. That’s because railroads, under federal law, are required to provide this information only to emergency planners. This lack of transparency is troublesome — citizens should have the right to know what is being transported through their communities.

For decades, the American government has dreamt of independence of oil production.

But now that we are on the road to this goal, the government has regrettably put economic and political priorities over the safety of the citizens it serves.

The voluntary measures agreed to in February are not enough — both industry and the American people need regulatory certainty to ensure safe transport of crude oil in our country, and they deserve nothing less.

Jim Hall is a transportation consultant and was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 until 2001.

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