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Hersman: Growing North American Oil Industry Tests Rail Safety


The Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board left office on Friday and on her final day she sat down with us to talk about a longstanding concern. Deborah Hersman says the growing North American oil industry is leading to a railroad safety problem.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: Since 2005, both ethanol and crude oil transport in the U.S. have increased by over 440 percent. We didn't have pipelines there but we do have rail lines. And so those rail lines are essentially now functioning like a moving pipeline. A hundred cars in a train, millions of gallons of crude or ethanol in those trains and they are moving across the country.

INSKEEP: Across the United States, across Canada, across the border. Hersman has been pushing for stricter standards for years, safer, new or retrofitted tanker cars to carry all that oil. A train derailment last year in Quebec killed 47 people and Canada announced last week it wanted thousands of the most dangerous tanker cars off Canadian tracks within a month.

The U.S. Department of Transportation says it will release new standards for tanker car safety this week. But those standards still faces months of review before they would be finalized. The NTSB first recommended stricter guidelines back in 2009 after a deadly train wreck in Illinois.

What has blocked the system here? We have a lot of different businesses that have an interest in this: railroads, oil companies, oil tank car manufacturers, the general public. I mean what entity has been the blockage here?

HERSMAN: Well, I would say that all of the entities really are trying to reach consensus, but the challenge is they haven't reached consensus. And so, in many ways that lack of consensus has paralyzed forward progress. We believe that there needs to be some adult supervision at this point. And the regulator needs to step in and tell people we have a problem and here so we're going to do.

They've done a lot to try to get to voluntary agreements. And, in fact, the railroad industry has taken some voluntary measures; reducing train speeds, more track inspections and committing to a higher standard of tank cars. But we've got to get the tank car builders and the petroleum industry and everyone else on board, and take some action.

INSKEEP: Do people just not want to spend the extra money?

HERSMAN: Well, it is a huge commitment of resources, $3 billion to address these tank cars is what we heard this past week from the industry. But at the end of the day, when you have an event like Lac-Megantic, money should never be the issue. And you can't ever make up for something like that.

INSKEEP: But I'm asking you if you believe money is the issue. Have you had industry groups who have just said this is too expensive?

HERSMAN: Absolutely, follow the money - it all comes back to the money. Making these heavier, stronger tank cars reduces the amount of product that can be put in the cars.

INSKEEP: So, based on this experience that you've had, I'm interested if you think the political system is working here. Because ultimately you have to turn to the political system, as well as the business system and the consumer environment, to look for change.

HERSMAN: You know, one of our strongest allies and advocates - with respect to NTSB investigations and our recommendations - actually many times are the politicians. We end up seeing our recommendations being implemented into law, and the regulators being required to do what we've recommended.

INSKEEP: I am wondering out loud, and you'll tell me if this is off-base or not. If lawmakers who we denigrate in so many ways are least responsive to their constituents on some level, whereas regulators may feel that they're doing the best thing they can for the country, but they are close to the industry and they understand perhaps to a fault or beyond a fault the perspective of the industry that they're supposed to be regulating. Anything to that?

HERSMAN: Well, I tell you I've been in different positions here in Washington. And I see a lot of times where things do work. And I think we hear a lot about the things that don't work...

INSKEEP: But are the regulators too close to the industries we've just been discussing?

HERSMAN: I think the regulators work very hard to get the best information that they can and make the decisions that they make. I do see rulemaking processes take too long. They need to expedite some activities. Yes, we need to have public comment, we need to provide the opportunity for all sides to be represented, we have to justify what we do based on a good cost-benefit. But there are some situations where they have to fast-track some of these things, and not let these processes, that can take years, play out. We don't have the time.

INSKEEP: And part of the reason it can take years is because they're listening really hard to the people that they regulate.

HERSMAN: That's right. They get new laws, they end up having court cases, there are a lot of efforts in many areas to try to derail or slow some of the activities down. But at the end of the day, it is their job to do that. They have got to provide the floor - not the ceiling when it comes to safety - but the minimum standards. And in this area, the minimum standards are not enough.

INSKEEP: Deborah Hersman, thanks very much.

HERSMAN: Thank you.


INSKEEP: She stepped down as chairman of the NTSB on Friday.


INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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