THE BLOG
10/21/2014 02:13 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

Fed Measures on Crude Oil Fall Short, Put Hudson River at Risk

Last May, we wrote about how the Hudson River Valley has become a virtual pipeline for the transport of highly flammable Bakken crude oil in unsafe DOT-111 railcars--the same tankers whose derailment has caused numerous explosions across the U.S. and the death of 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Canada.

Since then, very little has changed, which means the situation has just gotten worse.

Each day, more than 320 of these oil-laden cars continue to pass through our communities and along the shores of the Hudson River, one of the world's most biologically diverse tidal estuaries. To date, we've escaped disaster, although three trains pulling empty DOT-111s have derailed in the Hudson Valley. Each time a rail accident occurs in the region, as it did just last week, the environmental community holds its breath, expecting the worst.

What will happen if cars full of Bakken crude do go off the tracks? The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA), quoting the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), recently provided the answer: They "can almost always be expected to breach," making them "vulnerable to fire." The result would be catastrophic to the public health, vital natural and historic resources, and drinking water supplies of a region stretching from Albany to New York Harbor. It would cause long-lasting, if not permanent, damage to the estuary's entire ecosystem and the foundation of a vibrant, $4.75-billion tourism economy.

Both Scenic Hudson and Riverkeeper have been advocating vigorously for increased federal protections, including an immediate ban on the use of DOT-111s for transporting crude. Therefore, we were bitterly disappointed and frankly frustrated by new draft regulations proposed by the PHMSA regarding tanker redesign and other measures for reducing the risks of explosions and spills from these "bomb trains." They just don't go far enough fast enough, meaning our communities remain at grave risk. It also means the proposed rules don't comply with federal law, which requires strict safety upgrades that will protect the public.

In formal comments on the regulations our organizations submitted jointly, we outline how the PHMSA's rules are replete with loopholes and weak safety proposals.

• Despite acknowledging the safety hazards of DOT-111s, the proposed regulations would very slowly phase out their use for transporting Bakken crude and allow 23,000 of these outdated, dangerous cars to remain on the rails for shipping heavy Canadian tar sands crude, which presents different but equally serious safety and environmental risks.

• The regulations fail to require full disclosure of rail traffic information to first responders, and instead ask the industry if it would prefer to keep this information confidential.

• The regulations fail to require the most protective braking improvements or speed restrictions, and fail to even consider limits on the length of trains that could reduce accident risks and impacts of a derailment.

• The regulations would allow railroads to continue operating 120-car trains of Bakken crude oil without requiring any train-specific spill response plans--despite the fact that a 120-car train carries as much oil as an oil barge or tanker, both of which must have spill response plans approved by the Coast Guard.

Put simply, these rules defer to the rail and oil industries at every turn--and they won't stop the next bomb train disaster. As the NTSB warned in its official comments on these proposed rules, "Each delay in implementing a new design requirement allows the construction of more insufficiently protected tank cars that will both increase the immediate risks to communities and require costly modification later." Further, the NTSB concludes that the government's proposed standards for new and existing tank cars offer options that "do not achieve an acceptable level of safety and protection."

We deserve real protection for our communities and the environment. And we deserve it now.

For these reasons, Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson have called on the PHMSA to issue an emergency order requiring immediate adoption of the most stringent tank car standards, speed restrictions and use of electronic controlled pneumatic braking in all trains carrying crude, as well as closing loopholes in the rule that leave heavy tar sands crude and trains carrying fewer than 20 cars of Bakken crude completely unaddressed. (Scenic Hudson also has called for rules requiring Bakken crude to be processed at its source in North Dakota, making it much less volatile for shipment. This is done at many Texas oil fields.)

In addition, we are calling on federal rail regulators to designate the Hudson River Valley, as well as other similarly situated regions, highly important natural and cultural resources under PHMSA routing regulations. This means that the natural and cultural resources within this federally designated National Heritage Area (one of only 49) and Estuary of National Significance (one of 28) require special protection from potential explosions and spills. Rerouting bomb trains away from such specially designated regions would avert a disaster-waiting-to-happen to prime assets along their rail lines. In the Hudson Valley, those assets include six drinking water intakes; 91 state, county and municipal parks; 40 Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Areas; nine colleges; 69 public schools and 80 medical facilities.

The federal government has the responsibility to ensure the public's safety. Until Washington steps up and fulfills this obligation, we'll have to keep on holding our breath.