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February 06, 2014
Route alternatives recommended for crude shipments

The federal government is acting through several avenues to raise awareness about and address the risks associated with large rail shipments of crude oil and other flammable materials.  The most recent action is three recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to the Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) on route selection, oil spill response plans, and the packing group classification of crude oil shipments. 

The NTSB says the recommendations were issued jointly with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada because railroad companies routinely operate crude oil unit trains in both countries and across the U.S.-Canada border. The recommendations result from NTSB's participation in the investigation of the July 2013 derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in which 60 cars in a train released about 1.6 million gallons of crude oil.  Forty-seven people died in the resulting fire. 

According to the FRA, industry statistics show that crude oil shipments are the fastest growing of all hazardous materials shipped by rail. In its Annual Report of Hazardous Materials Transported by Rail for 2012, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) indicates that the number of crude oil originations increased by 443 percent since 2005.  The NTSB notes that other derailments in the United States of shipments of large volumes of ethanol as well as crude oil have resulted in spills, fires, toxic smoke, deaths, and property damage.  In 2012, more ethanol was transported via rail than any other hazardous material, says the NTSB.

Recommendation 1

PHMSA and the FRA have already issued regulations requiring rail carriers to analyze safety and security risks along rail routes where certain explosive, toxic, and radioactive materials are transported.  If the FRA finds the carrier’s route selection documentation and underlying analyses to be deficient, the carrier may be required to revise the analyses or make changes in the route selection. If the FRA finds that a selected route is not the safest and most secure practicable route available, the FRA may require the use of an alternative route.

The NTSB believes that at a minimum, the above route assessments, alternative route analysis, and route selection requirements should be extended to key trains transporting large volumes of flammable liquid. Therefore, the NTSB recommends that the FRA work with PHMSA to expand hazardous materials route planning and selection requirements for railroads to include key trains transporting flammable liquids and, where technically feasible, require rerouting to avoid transportation of such hazardous materials through populated and other sensitive areas.

Recommendation 2

Because trains typically travel many hundreds of miles, the response environments can present varied equipment needs, logistics, and containment strategies.  Along a selected route, carriers would be better prepared to mitigate damage caused by releases of petroleum products if they identify and ensure by contract the personnel and equipment necessary to respond to petroleum product spills.  While federal regulations require that railroads submit spill response plans to the FRA, there is no mandate for railroads to develop comprehensive plans or ensure the availability of necessary response resources.  The consequence is that carriers effectively place the burden of remediating the environmental consequences of an accident on local communities along their routes.

Also, the NTSB notes that there is no provision for the FRA to review and approve plans, which calls into question why these plans are required to be submitted. The FRA would be better prepared to identify deficient response plans if it had a program to thoroughly review and approve each plan before carriers are permitted to transport petroleum oil products, says the NTSB.

Therefore, the NTSB recommends that the FRA develop a program to audit response plans for rail carriers of petroleum products to ensure that adequate provisions are in place to respond to and remove a worst-case discharge to the maximum extent practicable and to mitigate or prevent a substantial threat of a worst-case discharge.

Recommendation 3

In the Lac-Mégantic incident, the crude oil being transported was incorrectly described in the original bills of lading as a Class 3 flammable material, Packing Group III, a categorization based on flash point.  Investigations indicated that the crude in fact had a lower flash point than applicable to Packing Group III and should have been assigned to the more-hazardous Packing Group II.  The NTSB recommends that the FRA audit shippers and rail carriers of crude oil to ensure they are using appropriate hazardous materials shipping classifications.

The issue of proper classification of shipments of certain crude petroleum products has been previously addressed by the FRA and PHMSA in the jointly developed Operation Classification program and in a subsequent safety advisory from PHMSA. 

NTSB’s safety recommendations

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