‘Inadequate’ tanker cars still on the rails 20+ years after safety report

Indianapolis - DOT 111 A Near Lucas Oil Stadium
Lynchburg VA Crude Oil Train Derailment
On April 30, 2014 several crude oil tankers traveling on a rail line in Lynchburg, Virginia derailed. Click here to see more images from crude oil tanker accidents.

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Concerns over aging tank cars hauling crude oil by rail have bubbled up in the past year after a series of fiery train derailments – including one deadly incident last year in Canada that killed 47 people.

While railroad and oil industry insiders contend that rail transportation remains the safest method for moving Bakken crude oil – which is fracked in North Dakota – recent incidents have prompted renewed criticism over the oil, hazardous materials and the tank cars used to transport them.

An I-Team 8 investigation broke the news Thursday that the Indiana Department of Homeland Security withheld information about Bakken crude oil shipments from local emergency responders for four months.

Our report exposed that county emergency managers, firefighters and hazardous materials directors from at least 12 counties were left in the dark with regard to where the oil was being shipped and how often.

That’s despite an executive order from the U.S. Department of Transportation issued that requires rail companies and states notify emergency responders in affected counties.

A Closer Look at Crude Oil Shipments

Our investigation uncovered the fact that IDHS received the notifications in June but waited until October to forward the information about oil routes and weekly shipping estimates. Tens of millions of gallons of Bakken crude oil is shipped through several Indiana counties as often as 24 times a week, an I-Team 8 analysis of railroad data showed.

For weeks the state denied there was a problem.

But after several email and phone conversations pressing for answers, an IDHS spokesman John Erickson admitted there was a “delay” with the first round of notifications. Erickson said the state has since received two additional notifications from rail companies about Bakken crude oil.

Tanking out 

“Norfolk Southern wants the safest possible tank cars to be moving on our network.”

In recent months, tank cars used to transport the oil and other hazardous materials – including older models known as DOT 111As – have drawn as much ire on Capitol Hill as the oil itself.

During a February House subcommittee meeting on rail safety, Robert Sumwalt, the current chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told lawmakers: “Quite simply, the continued use … of these tank cars poses an unacceptable public risk.”

During that same subcommittee hearing, Rep. Peter Defazio, D – Oregon, pressed federal transportation officials for answers about how soon new safety standards would be put in place: “There’s so much uncertainty. People aren’t going to make those investments and we are going to keep running these crummy 111 cars and killing people. So bottom line – how quickly can you have a new design, please?”

The Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration is currently weighing more than 3,000 comments as it tries to finalize a proposed rule change that would increase safety standards for tank cars, according to Joe Delcambre, a spokesman for PHMSA, who responded to questions from I-Team 8 on Friday.

Among the proposed changes include beefed up tanker walls, enhanced brake systems and reduced train speeds.

A full explanation of the proposed rule changes for tank cars can be found on the PHMSA website.

A list of comments provided to regulators can be found on regulations.gov.

Rail companies appear to have embraced the changes.

“No matter what comes out of any proposed regulation in Washington, Norfolk Southern wants the safest possible tank cars to be moving on our network,” Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern said in a recent interview with our sister station WANE-TV.

“CSX has endorsed the idea of higher standards for tank car construction for sometime,” Rob Doolittle, a spokesman for CSX, told I-Team 8 in late October during a safety seminar in Indianapolis.

A published report this week suggests that rail company BNSF is going to start charging shippers a fee if they insist on using older tank cars.

Oil industry leaders have agreed to change, but have been somewhat reluctant when it comes to seeing eye to eye with PHMSA’s recommendations.

DOT-111A Oil Tanker Car
I-Team 8 found the tanker cars all over the state: from La Porte to Indianapolis, Avon to Lafayette. Click here to see some of the tankers

For example, PHMSA has asked that all older tanker cars be retrofitted with new safety improvements within two years – a timeline that the American Petroleum Institute says “isn’t feasible.”

“It is no exaggeration to say that, given the shop capacity limitations that exist, PHMSA’s current proposals could stifle North America’s energy renaissance and curtail substantial volumes of U.S. and Canadian oil production,” according to comments API spokesman Brian Straessle forwarded to I-Team 8.

‘Inadequacy of protection’ 

“DOT 111As… are used to carry hazardous materials that can pose a substantial danger to life.”

The NTSB first criticized the DOT 111As in a safety report issued more than a quarter century ago, I-Team 8 discovered. In that report, dated July 1, 1991, safety administrators noted that the “DOT 111As… are used to carry hazardous materials that can pose a substantial danger to life, property and the environment.”

It goes on to note “the inadequacy of protection provided by DOT-111A tank cars for certain dangerous products has been evident for many years.”

Yet, almost 25 years later, I-Team 8 found the tanker cars all over the state: from La Porte to Indianapolis, Avon to Lafayette. The materials often varied: from ethanol to corn syrup and sulfuric acid to Bakken crude oil.

PHMSA hazardous material incident reports – reviewed by I-Team 8 – show that DOT-111As often leaked or malfunctioned due to “missing or misaligned components”, “deterioration or aging” or “loose components.” according to recent incidents in Indiana that I-Team 8 reviewed.

A copy of those reports can be found below.

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