THE BLOG

Oil Trains Too Fast, New Safety Rules Too Slow

05/04/2015 12:25 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

In the first three months of 2015 four oil train accidents sent emergency responders scrambling, crude oil spilling into drinking water supplies, and fireballs blasting into the sky. The string of accidents in February and March demonstrate the severe threat from Bakken crude and Alberta tar sands moving on mile-long oil trains. These derailments and explosions set a bar we can use to measure the new oil train standards announced today by the US and Canadian governments.

Would the new rules have prevented any of the 2015 accidents and, ultimately, will they reduce the threat of oil train catastrophes like the 2013 Lac Megantic, Quebec, explosion that killed 47 people? The answer is no, and the reason is speed: the regulations move too slow and the trains continue to move too fast.

The rules announced at a joint press conference today by US and Canadian officials arrive decades late and with the sticky fingerprints of the oil and rail industry all over them. The administration has slowed down and narrowed the scope of the rules so the most dangerous tank cars stay on the rails for at least two and a half years. Other unsafe tank cars have five or seven years before they must meet new higher standards.

Not that the new standards will help much: All four 2015 accidents involved CPC-1232 cars, the newer tank cars that are supposedly safer than the dangerous DOT-111s. But to be clear, neither the upgraded cars or new cars built to the new standard will prevent an explosion if the train is moving at normal speeds.

So we can begin to look for new and upgraded cars (like the ones that exploded in recent months) in the years to come, but those living along the tracks can still expect to see the worst cars continue to roll by their homes for a very long time. The administration effectively allows rail companies to keep antiquated tank cars on the rails in trains with fewer than 35 crude oil tank cars (or 20 in a row.) That means oil trains hauling up to a million gallons of explosive crude oil in the most dangerous tank cars will keep rolling through a downtown near you FOREVER.

The administration trumpets new electronically controlled pneumatic brakes for oil trains. While it's good news that oil and rail companies will use state-of-the-art technology, the administration is giving them until 2021 to install the new better brakes. That's six years too long to require what should be a basic minimum safety requirement.

And while these upgrades to the tank car fleet creep slowly into place, the trains will continue flying down the tracks at reckless speeds. The new rule allows oil trains to travel at more than twice the rated "puncture velocity" of even the new tank cars that they will (in some cases) eventually require. That means that oil trains carrying three million gallons of explosive crude will continue to travel at 50 mph across North America, except in a small number of "high threat" urban areas where they must go 40. The new speed limits offer little comfort because three of the four of the explosive accidents in 2015 occurred at speeds below 35 mph. (The accident in Gogama, ON, occurred at 43 mph, just three mph over the "high-priority" speed limit.) The Galena, Illinois, derailment occurred at only 23 mph, proving that the speed limits in the rule are inadequate to protect anyone.

In the final insult to injury, the administration walked too quickly away from notification standards in an earlier draft of the rule, leaving citizens and emergency responders in the dark about where these trains are running and when.

The Obama Administration took its time developing new rules for hazardous materials on trains that run through the heart of America: they looked at the threat of exploding oil trains, but heavy industry lobbying made them flinch. The administration failed to learn the lessons of Lac Megantic or the four explosive oil train accidents we've seen so far in 2015 alone. They have given public safety the cold shoulder, instead embracing the oil and rail industry lobbyists peddling this dangerous cargo.

We were fortunate that none of the 2015 accidents caused fatalities. ForestEthics and our many partners will continue pushing the administration to do a lot better and hope that our luck holds while we stop these dangerous trains from crisscrossing North America. But it shouldn't be a matter of luck. Secretary Foxx and President Obama have chosen to roll the dice instead of writing strong rules that protect the 25 million of us living in the blast zone.