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Groups Sue Obama Administration Over Weak Tank Car Standards

The new safety standards issued by the Department of Transportation take too long to get dangerous tank cars off the tracks and contain loopholes that leave too many vulnerable
Aerial view of clean up after a Genesee & Wyoming train carrying North Dakota crude derailed near Aliceville, AL, in November 2014.

Aerial view of clean up after a Genesee & Wyoming train carrying North Dakota crude derailed near Aliceville, AL, in November 2014, exploding and burning for more than 18 hours. An estimated 748,800 gallons of oil spilled, including into surrounding wetlands. Four months later, oil was still oozing into the water.

Photo courtesy of John Wathen
May 14, 2015
San Francisco, CA —

In the wake of a spate of fiery derailments and toxic spills involving trains hauling volatile crude oil, a coalition of conservation organizations and citizen groups are challenging the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) weak safety standards for oil trains. Less than a week after the DOT released its final tank car safety rule on May 1, a train carrying crude oil exploded outside of Heimdal, North Dakota. Under the current standards, the tank cars involved in the accident would not be retired from crude oil shipping or retrofitted for another 5 to 8 years.

Earthjustice has filed suit in the 9th Circuit challenging the rule on behalf of ForestEthics, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Washington Environmental Council, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Spokane Riverkeeper, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The Department of Transportation’s weak oil train standard just blew up in its face on the plains of North Dakota last week,” said Patti Goldman, Earthjustice attorney. “Pleas from the public, reinforced by the National Transportation Safety Board, to stop hauling explosive crude in these tank cars have fallen on deaf ears, leaving people across the country vulnerable to catastrophic accidents.”

Rather than immediately banning the most dangerous tank cars—DOT-111s and CPC-1232s—that are now used every day to transport volatile Bakken and tar sands crude oil, the new standards call for a 10-year phase out. Even then the standard will allow smaller trains—up to 35 loaded tank cars in a train—to continue to use the unsafe tank cars.

The new rule fails to protect people and communities in several major ways:

  • The rule leaves hazardous cars carrying volatile crude oil on the tracks for up to 10 years.
  • The rule has gutted public notification requirements, leaving communities and emergency responders in the dark about the oil trains and explosive crude oil rumbling through their towns and cities.
  • New cars will require thicker shells to reduce punctures and leaks, but retrofit cars are subject to a less protective standard.
  • The standard doesn’t impose adequate speed limits to ensure that oil trains run at safe speeds. Speed limits have been set for “high threat urban areas,” but very few cities have received that designation.

See a close analysis of the hidden dangers buried in the federal tank car rule.

“Explosive oil trains present real and imminent danger, and protecting the public and waterways requires an aggressive regulatory response,” said Marc Yaggi, Executive Director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “Instead, the Department of Transportation has finalized an inadequate rule that clearly was influenced by industry and will not prevent more explosions and fires in our communities. We hope our challenge will result in a rule that puts the safety of people and their waterways first.”

“We’re suing the administration because these rules won’t protect the 25 million Americans living in the oil train blast zone,” says Todd Paglia, ForestEthics Executive Director. “Let’s start with common sense—speed limits that are good for some cities are good for all communities, 10 years is too long to wait for improved tank cars, and emergency responders need to know where and when these dangerous trains are running by our homes and schools.”

BACKGROUND

The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly found that the DOT-111 tank cars are prone to puncture on impact, spilling oil and often triggering destructive fires and explosions. The Safety Board has made official recommendations to stop shipping crude oil in these hazardous tank cars, but the federal regulators have not heeded these pleas. Recent derailments and explosions have made clear that newer tank cars, known as CPC-1232s, are not significantly safer, and the Safety Board has called for a ban on shipping hazardous fuels in these cars as well.

A 90+ car train carrying Bakken crude oil travels through North Dakota.
Chris Boyer / Kestrel Aerial Services, Inc.
An oil train carrying Bakken crude travels through North Dakota.

The recent surge in U.S. and Canadian oil production, much of it from Bakken shale and Alberta tar sands, led to a more than 4,000 percent increase in crude oil shipped by rail from 2008 to 2013, primarily in trains with 100 to 120 oil cars that can be over 1.5 miles long. The result has been oil spills, destructive fires, and explosions when oil trains have derailed. More oil spilled in train accidents in 2013 than in the 38 years from 1975 to 2012 combined.

ForestEthics calculates that 25 million Americans live in the dangerous blast zone along the nation’s rail lines.

REPORTER RESOURCES

Friends of the Columbia Gorge: The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area in Oregon and Washington is a scenic treasure and should not be converted to a fossil fuel highway for dangerous oil by rail.  Friends of the Columbia Gorge is joining in the appeal of these inadequate rules in order to ensure the protection the Columbia River Gorge and its communities. Contact Michael Lang, Conservation Director, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, (503) 490-3979, michael@gorgefriends.org.

Waterkeeper Alliance unites more than 250 worldwide Waterkeeper organizations engaging in citizen advocacy on issues that affect our waterways. The spills, explosions, and fires from derailed oil trains pose a serious threat to many waterways and the communities that surround them.

The Sierra Club is the nation's largest grassroots environmental organization, with chapters in all fifty states. The Club can speak broadly about tank car safety, as well as the risk to local communities in the bomb train blast zone. Contact Mark Westlund, 415-977-5719; mark.westlund@sierraclub.org.

Washington Environmental Council drives positive change to address our state’s most critical environmental challenges. Our work to prevent an increase in oil transport in the Northwest and advance safety measures for oil transportation brings together our goals of protecting Puget Sound and addressing climate change. Contact Rebecca Ponzio, Oil Campaign Directer (206) 631-2604, rebecca@wecprotects.org.

The Spokane Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect the Spokane River and its watershed from environmental threats, educate the public about issues that face our river, and ensure that it is accessible to the public for generations. The organization maintains that effective federal rules for oil transportation by rail are essential to protect our community and our Spokane River. Currently, these lines cross the Spokane River and several tributaries making them vulnerable to oil spills and endangering the lives of several hundred thousand people in the region. Contact Jerry White, Jr., 509-464-7614, jerry@cforjustice.org.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to the protection of endangered species, wild places and the people and communities that rely on them. The Center has published a report on oil train hazards that highlights the harm that the continued use of dangerous tank cars poses to communities and wildlife across the country. Contact Jared Margolis, 971-717-6404, JMargolis@biologicaldiversity.org.

Contacts

Maggie Caldwell, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2084

Larissa Liebmann, Waterkeeper Alliance, 212-747-0622 ext. 122

Eddie Scher, ForestEthics, (415) 863-4563, ext. 314