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String Of Oil Train Crashes Prompts Push For Safety Rules

A fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D., in December.
Bruce Crummy
A fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D., in December.

The National Transportation Safety Board is calling for the swift enactment of tough new standards on trains carrying crude oil. And in an unprecedented move, the NTSB made its recommendations jointly with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

With the huge increase in oil shipped by train across North America, the agencies warn another major disaster could be looming.

Just last month, in North Dakota an eastbound train carrying light Bakken crude oil hit a grain train that had just derailed and soon one tank car after another exploded into flames. Thousands of nearby residents were forced to evacuate as the wreckage continued to burn through the night and all the next day.

It's one of a series of explosive oil train crashes, including one in Alabama last November. Another last July, in a small town in Quebec, killed 47 people.

The number of trains carrying Bakken crude oil has skyrocketed — from fewer than 10,000 tank carloads in 2009 to more than 400,000 last year. And that worries people who live near the tracks.

"We are gonna have a derailment, somewhere," says Kenton Onstad, a state representative from the western part of North Dakota. "Are we ready for that, emergency services ready for that? This is not a case of if it's gonna happen, it's when it's gonna happen."

Onstad is one of an increasing number of local and state officials demanding new safety improvements. Among those leading the chorus is Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

"We believe action is needed, and it's needed now," she says.

One problem, Hersman says, is that this oil from the Bakken shale formation of North Dakota is not like other crudes. It's lighter, and its volatile natural gases tend to ignite easily. So the NTSB wants to ensure it's properly classified to be certain it's shipped and handled correctly.

And, Hersman says, the older tank cars that carry much of this flammable crude are inadequate and prone to rupture easily.

"We want to make sure that if there is a derailment, if there is a collision, that these tank cars maintain their integrity because once we see a failure of one tank car, it starts a pool fire and it spreads to the other tank cars," she says.

In the North Dakota crash, for example, 18 of the 20 tank cars that derailed ruptured and most of them burned.

The railroads, shippers and energy companies agree new regulations are needed and they support many of the NTSB's recommendations. In fact, since 2011, the rail industry has required that new tank cars be stronger and more puncture resistant.

But there's disagreement on whether to retrofit or phase out older cars. Railroads and rail car manufacturers support it, but those who own and fill the cars do not. Retrofitting could cost billions and energy producers say there's no guarantee retrofits will work.

"The cars themselves are not the cause of the accident. The cause is they're going off the track," says Rayola Dougher of the American Petroleum Institute. "The cause is operational or someone's not putting a brake on. So that really should be a key focus of enhancing the safety."

Where everyone in the business and even the NTSB agree is that the Department of Transportation has been too slow to enact new standards and regulations to meet new oil shipping demands.

DOT would not make anyone available for comment for this story but issued a statement, saying work on the NTSB recommendations is already underway.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx met last week with railroad and petroleum industry leaders, who agreed on some immediate steps to improve the safe transport of crude. Additional steps can be expected in the coming days and weeks.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.

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