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Dangerous Cargo: The Push for Slower Trains & Stonger Cars


For decades Americans have worried about our dependence on foreign oil and gas.  By 2005 we were importing 60% of our energy, but in 2008 a new technology called horizontal hydrologic fracturing or “fracking” raised the promise of energy independence. 

U.S. crude production is up 50% and  imports have fallen 35%.  But getting oil from a massive shale deposit in North Dakota to refineries is raising serious concerns about public safety.

Every day, 800,000 barrels of crude oil are loaded into tank cars in North Dakota, headed for places like Yorktown, Virginia where it’s transferred to barges bound for refineries along the East Coast.  Some of these trains are more than a hundred cars long, and the American Association of Railroads is worried.  Spokesman Patricia Reilly says many of the cars leased to carry crude are old and were not designed for the job.

"They don’t have pressure release valves.  They don’t have the full thermal jacket, they don’t have full heat shields on either end.  They’re very vulnerable to accidents, and they’re carrying the volatile gases that we’ve seeing coming out of the Bakken Shale formation these days, and that’s where it’s a bad combination."

Companies that produce or refine crude oil agree. Charlie Drevna is with the American Petrochemical Manufacturers Association:

“My industry has already petitioned the Department of Transportation to certify a more advanced car – more robust structure, better relief valves, all those kind of things.”

And the federal government has advised railroads and shippers to avoid the older tank cars when carrying crude oil, but with so much of the stuff produced in North Dakota, companies that lease cars may be reluctant to take any out of service.  What’s more U.S. Senator Mark Warner told a forum in Richmond that those firms may not have the money to replace an estimated 80,000 older tank cars known as DOT-111s.

"From 2008 to 2013, the amount of crude being transported has increased 46 fold.  76 – You’ve got the folks who produce the oil making a lot of money.  You’ve got the railroads who are doing pretty well as well – 46 times increase in the amount of volume, but + the people who own the rail cars are a totally separate group. It’s kind of a leasing and ownership operation on the rail cars, so they don’t have the same kind of resources.”

Regardless of the cost, the federal government is likely to propose a timetable for retiring the old DOT-111’s.  Look for that by year’s end, but remember this footnote. Cynthia Quarterman, who heads the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, says sturdier cars won’t prevent future accidents like the one that killed 47 people in Quebec.

"They are not crash proof.  I don’t think we’re going to see a tank car that can withstand a crash like the one that occurred in Lac Megantic with tank cars going 60 miles per hour.  So it’s one piece of the problem."

The federal government and the railroads have agreed to lower the speed limit to 40 miles per hour for trains carrying Bakken Crude through 46 metropolitan areas -- none of them in Virginia, but critics note the Lynchburg train derailed at 24 miles per hour.  True, says Federal Railway Administrator Joe Szabo, but only one car exploded.

"There’s not significant risk when it’s a single tank car that ruptures.  When you have a piling up, that’s where your risk grows for a more serious event."

So the feds and the railroads have also agreed to improve braking methods to try and prevent pile-ups in the event of a crash.  In Lynchburg, however, the accident was likely caused by another problem – the rail itself.

In our next report, we’ll explain how tracks are maintained in Virginia, and why doubling down on inspections may not prevent future calamities.

Click here information about the CSX notice sent to Virginia's Department of Emergency Management, listing communities through which Bakken is passing.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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