WASHINGTON — Federal authorities issued an emergency order Friday adding safety steps and requiring trains hauling crude oil and other flammable liquids, including ethanol, to slow down as they pass through urban areas.
The Obama administration has been under intense pressure from members of Congress as well as state and local officials to ensure the safety of oil trains that traverse the country after leaving the Bakken region of North Dakota.
To get to refineries on the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, oil shipments travel through more than 400 counties, including major metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Newark and dozens of other cities. The cars carrying the oil typically are owned by shippers, not the railroads.
As many as 30 trains carrying at least a million gallons of Bakken crude -- a threshold met by filling only 35 tank cars -- pass through Nebraska each week. Typically they enter Nebraska from Sioux City, Iowa, and travel south to Ashland, where most turn east and cross back into Iowa at Plattsmouth, according to the latest reports by BNSF Railway to the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency. Two to seven oil trains a week pass through Lincoln and then head southeast through Gage, Johnson and Richardson County to the bridge at Rulo, according to the BNSF data.
There have been a series of fiery oil train explosions in the U.S. and Canada in recent years, including one just across the border in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.
Major freight railroads have already limited oil trains to no more than 40 miles per hour in "high threat" urban areas under a voluntary agreement reached last year with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. But Friday's order by the Transportation Department makes the speed limitation a requirement and extends it to trains carrying other flammable liquids, such as ethanol.
The American Association of Railroads reported Nebraska originated almost 57,000 carloads of ethanol in 2012, the latest year available by state. That was 21 percent of the nation's total. Only Iowa originated more, almost 93,000 cars that year. Ethanol has proven to be less volatile than Bakken crude oil.
The voluntary agreement applied only to trains that used older tank cars that are easily ruptured in crashes. The new order includes tank cars constructed since 2011 that were designed to replace the older cars, but which have also repeatedly ruptured in crashes, spilling their contents and igniting intense fires that have burned for days. So far this year there have been four oil train derailments producing huge fireballs -- two in the U.S. and two in Canada. All involved the newer tank cars known as 1232 cars.
The department has also issued an advisory to railroads to use the latest technology to check for flaws in train wheels that can cause a crash. A broken train wheel is suspected of causing the March 5 derailment near Galena, Illinois, of a train hauling 103 cars of Bakken crude.
Railroads were also notified that the department is working on regulations requiring them to provide more detailed information on the trains and their contents than currently required, including any testing and analysis of the crude oil before the tank cars were filled.
Test results of crude from the Bakken region show it is often far more volatile and likely to ignite than other types of crude oil. The American Petroleum Institute says Bakken crude is similar to other light, sweet crudes.
The American Association of Railroads objected to parts of the order that addressed the provision of customer information AAR said the railroads don't possess.
“Overall, these federal provisions reflect the fact that moving crude by rail is a shared responsibility, involving a safety system of prevention, mitigation and response,” said AAR CEO Edward R. Hamberger. “Railroads, like all supply chain stakeholders, anxiously await the federal government’s final rules on tank cars, which directly addresses the heart of mitigation.”
The department earlier a proposed a more comprehensive series of regulations to address oil train safety, including a stronger tank car design and better train braking systems. The proposal is under review at the White House and final regulations are expected to be released in the next few weeks.