North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple has announced new rules that reduce the vapor pressure in oil tanker cars leaving his state’s booming oil patch. The goal is to reduce the risk of fiery explosions like the one that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec in July 2013.
In separate efforts, Congress is beefing up safety standards for oil tank cars and the White House is calling for increased rail inspections and slower speeds for oil trains traveling through populated areas. Meanwhile, our state Legislature is working to tighten regulations on oil trains and establish a per-barrel tax to be used for spill cleanup. Stiffer science-based safety regulations for crude-carrying trains are welcome.
BNSF, the major crude-carrying railroad, announced a series of safety improvements. It has stepped up inspections of its track and roadbeds, particularly along waterways; slowed oil trains to 35 mph in areas where more than 100,000 people live; and it is accelerating the pace at which it brings new, safer oil tankers into its fleet.
Additionally, BNSF Railway announced in February that it will spend $189 million this year on maintenance and improvements on its track system in Washington. The work focuses on replacing almost 50 miles of rails and 200,000 railroad ties along more than 1,000 miles of track. Areas of focus will include BNSF’s Columbia River Gorge main line east of Vancouver and the route between Vancouver and Seattle,
Railroads and highways are the backbone of America’s transportation network. Rail cars and trucks carry essentials that we use daily. Unfortunately, some of the cargo is hazardous. While the current focus is on crude oil incidents, other substances have been involved.
For example, in the early morning of April 11, 1996, a train traveling 40 mph through Montana derailed when a worn rail broke, sending 19 cars off the tracks. Six of those cars contained hazardous chemicals.
The derailment sent a cloud of chlorine gas toward the town of Alberton, 30 miles west of Missoula. Emergency responders evacuated the town, closed Interstate 90 and transported 356 people to hospitals for inhalation.
Today, that same track carries tank cars loaded with gasoline for Spokane, North Idaho and Northeast Washington.
Originally, the gasoline travelled through the Yellowstone Pipeline from Billings to Spokane. But in 1995 – the year before the derailment – the Salish and Kootenai tribes terminated a lease that allowed the pipeline to operate under their land. As a result, refined petroleum must be loaded onto tank cars in Missoula and railed 100 miles northwest to Thompson Falls and then re-injected into the pipeline, which ends in Spokane.
While pipelines may be the safest way to transport oil and gas, projects like the Keystone XL are stymied by President Obama.
Modern technology allows railroads to find defective track and malfunctioning equipment much faster. Safer equipment and increased inspections benefits freight and passenger trains, as well. Additionally, railroads are purchasing safer rail cars and newer, efficient locomotives that are environmentally friendly.
Freight rail is an important pillar of Washington’s economy, generating 10 percent of the state’s GDP. Railroads support more than 342,000 jobs in our state and are vital to our international trade.
Stopping rail shipments of crude oil and hazardous cargo is not a viable option.
It is better to strengthen railroad beds, replace aging track and bridges, enact better safety standards, increase inspections, continue to train emergency responders and invest in new technology and modern equipment.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.