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Departing NTSB head criticizes 'tombstone mentality' on oil trains

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration needs to take steps immediately to protect the public from potentially catastrophic oil train accidents even if it means using emergency authority, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said Wednesday.

The NTSB investigates accidents. The Transportation Department is drafting regulations to toughen standards for tank cars used to transport oil and ethanol, as well as other steps to prevent or mitigate accidents. But there isn't time to wait for the cumbersome federal rulemaking process — which often takes many years to complete — to run its normal course, Hersman said.

"We are very clear that this issue needs to be acted on very quickly," she told reporters at the conclusion of a two-day forum the board held on the rail transport of oil and ethanol. "There is a very high risk here that hasn't been addressed."

Nebraska's and the nation's biggest railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF Railway, don't disclose specific figures on oil and ethanol traffic in Nebraska, but employees say hundreds of cars move through the state and its towns and cities every day. 

Federal regulators have the power to issue emergency orders or interim rules to protect the public rather than running the risk of another accident occurring before regulations are in place, Hersman said. "They aren't moving fast enough," she said. "We don't need a higher body count before they move forward."

Hersman, who is stepping down as chairman at the end of the week, said that over her 10 years on the board she had "seen a lot of difficulty when it comes to safely rules being implemented if we don't have a high enough body count."

"That is a tombstone mentality," she said. "We know the steps that will prevent or mitigate these accidents. What is missing is the will to require people to do so."

The Transportation Department issued a statement in response to Hersman's criticism. "Safety is our top priority, which is why we're putting every option on the table when it comes to improving the safe transport of crude oil by rail.

"In addition to moving forward on updating tank car regulations, we have taken immediate action to issue multiple safety advisories, conduct investigations and reach agreements with the rail industry to reduce speeds, utilize new braking technology and improve first responder training — an unprecedented, comprehensive approach."

Concern about the safe transport of highly flammable oil were heightened after a runaway oil train derailed and then exploded last July in the small town of Lac-Megantic in Canada, just across the border from Maine. More than 60 tank cars spilled more than 1.3 million gallons of crude oil from the booming Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana. Forty-seven people were killed and 30 buildings destroyed in the inferno.

There have been eight oil-train accidents in the U.S. and Canada in the past year, including several that created spectacular fires. The accidents reflect a dramatic increase in oil shipments by rail as a result of the fracking boom in the Bakken region and other parts of the U.S.

There is a lack of consensus among railroads, the oil industry and rail carmakers on the critical issue of tougher tank car standards, as well phasing out or retrofitting older tank cars. Final regulations are at least months, and possibly years, away.


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