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Rail industry’s improved tank cars failing to prevent spills

POWELLTON HOLLOW — In the short time since the derailment of a CSX train here hauling 109 tankers of crude oil last month, a number of similar accidents have occurred across the nation, despite federal and industry officials’ assurances that transporting the hazardous liquid is safer than ever.

On Saturday, the derailment cleanup was complete. A mile or so from the site, residents sat in their colorful former coal camp houses and talked of that day and their worries that it might happen again.

Something biblical, wrath-of-God, is how some described it. Others used a similar word — apocalyptic.

Many said they know little if anything about rail or tanker regulations, but they now know what happens when things don’t work like they are supposed to.

Incidents like the Feb. 16 spill, followed by fireballs along the banks of the Kanawha River, are becoming common, federal documents show. A search of federal records indicates that last month’s derailment was not unusual, and that the number of incidents involving derailments of oil tankers is increasing.

This leaves many wondering why the sturdier train cars built specifically to carry crude oil have failed to prevent major spills.

The new cars, known as CPC-1232s, were hailed by government and industry officials as the new and improved workhorses to safely transport hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil across the United States.

Related: Derailed CSX train in W. Virginia hauled newer-model tank cars

But a spate of television news videos of derailments and fireballs leaves some wondering if the workhorses are just show horses.

Federal officials said a couple weeks after the Fayette County accident that 141 “unintentional releases” were reported from railroad tankers last year.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration reported that those 141 spills are an all-time record and nearly six-fold above the average spill rate of 24 that occurred annually from 1975 to 2012.

The new cars were supposed to decrease those numbers dramatically, one former federal official said. Cynthia Quarterman, who oversaw the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration until October, said the numbers “confirm that the CPC-1232 just doesn’t cut it.”

Tanker improvement alone, she said, is not enough to reduce the overall risk. Along with improved crashworthiness of the tankers, a comprehensive solution must also include better brakes to minimize pile-ups.

Communications with several large railroads led to Ed Greenberg, a spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s trade group, who said railroads want crude oil transported in the newer tankers.

A position paper released by the association states it favors retrofitting tank cars, including CPC-1232s, that haul crude oil, or removing tankers from service.

Related: BP Cherry Point will allow only newer-model train cars at its crude oil terminal

The cars involved in the Feb. 16 derailment in Fayette County all met the 2011 standards adopted by the industry. The tankers, officials said, were built with thicker shells and pressure-relief brakes.

The railroad association estimates there are about 60,000 CPC-1232 tankers hauling crude oil in the United States and approximately 100,000 of the older models still in service.

State officials said since the crude oil is transported across state lines there is little they can do, citing federal laws about interstate commerce.

But safety advocates and attorneys argue the state is hiding behind the interstate commerce clause, saying West Virginia officials are overlooking the undue burden part of the law.

They said courts have ruled that states can place limits on interstate commerce if it doesn’t cause an undue burden on a company.

Various federal and state sources show that crude oil production in West Virginia has boomed in the last few years, from 2.1 million barrels annually to 6.9 million barrels.

CSX officials confirmed the tankers that caught fire in Fayette County were the latest design.

According to the railroad association, the problem is that transportation has yet to catch up with rail demand from the United States and Canadian companies that ship oil. When the energy industry started using rail to ship oil in 2008, officials saw it as a cheaper, faster way to to move the growing barrels of crude oil extracted primarily in North Dakota. In the seven years since, trains are carrying 40 times more oil, or about 400,000 tanker-car loads annually, according to the railroad association.

Charles Esser, an analyst with the International Energy Association, recently blogged, “North American rail shipments of oil are by no means unprecedented, but until the recent surge in production, they were largely limited to stopgap, temporary use, with pipeline construction favored. … While overall only about 10 percent of U.S. crude moves by tanker car, nearly 70 percent of the production from North Dakota’s surging Bakken field reaches refineries by rail.”

It’s not surprising, he wrote, that derailments have increased. And he pointed out that the crude oil in last month’s Fayette County spill was from the Bakken fields headed to an oil terminal in Yorkville, Va.

Pipelines are the answer, the energy industry has said. They say they’re safer than rail when moving explosive liquids, but pipeline opponents contend that pipeline spills are larger. The Fayette County spill, several environmental groups believe, highlights the shortcomings found in local preparedness for hazardous cargo accidents.

That might be changing. Last week, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade group representing refinery owners, filed suit against BNSF Railways for overstepping its authority and penalizing oil shippers for using the older tankers, even though the cars are still legal.

The lawsuit states on Jan 1, BNSF started charging an extra $1,000 for using older rail cars to ship crude. Since the cars carry about 700 barrels, it will add approximately $1.50 per barrel in extra costs.

In a press release after the Feb. 16 accident, Devorah Ancel, an attorney for the environmental group the Sierra Club, said the federal Department of Transportation must put into place “tougher standards for rail cars that transport crude oil” and immediately replace the older, unsafe, prone-to-failure tankers.

“The best way to safeguard our air and water, our communities and our families, is to speed up the transition to clean energy prosperity and keep dirty, volatile fuels like Bakken crude in the ground,” she said.

A DOT attorney declined to release the details of a draft of new tank-car regulations submitted to the White House. However, a number of news outlets reported possible requirements may include a steel shell, nine-sixteenths of an inch thick, an outer jacket and thermal layer to prevent overheating, extra protection for top and bottom outlets and electronically controlled brakes.

The only problem, many point out, is there is no guarantee those new tankers will be safe, either. And that will do little to comfort the residents of Powellton Hollow.


This article was written by DANIEL TYSON from The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.