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Groups say Crude Oil too Risky for Some Rail Cars

PHOTO: A federal lawsuit filed this week asks the U.S. Department of Transportation to ban the use of DOT-111 tank cars for shipping crude oil. Photo credit: Citizens Acting for Rail Safety
PHOTO: A federal lawsuit filed this week asks the U.S. Department of Transportation to ban the use of DOT-111 tank cars for shipping crude oil. Photo credit: Citizens Acting for Rail Safety
December 4, 2014

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Oil is being shipped across the country in train cars that the federal government says are unsafe, and two environmental groups are taking on the U.S. Department of Transportation, saying the agency isn't doing enough about it.

The Sierra Club and ForestEthics petitioned the department to ban the use of DOT-111 tank cars with potentially explosive crude oil, because the groups say they are prone to puncture, spills, and fires in train accidents.

Patti Goldman, an attorney with the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, says two-thirds of the crude oil transported by rail in the U.S. is in this type of tank car, which she describes as flimsy.

"They've been called soda cans on wheels, and they puncture as least twice as often as the next tank car,” she maintains. “And the National Transportation Safety Board has said they pose unacceptable public risks."

Goldman stresses DOT-111 tank cars already have been banned for shipping most hazardous chemicals.

The Transportation Department says it won't ban using them for crude oil shipment and instead is planning a rule-making process about the issue. Goldman says that means a multi-year phase-out that her clients contend would take too long.

In the meantime, the Transportation Department has issued an advisory urging rail shippers to use the safest available tank cars in their fleet for crude oil.

The DOT-111s can be retrofitted, but Goldman says the federal government is caving to pressure from oil and rail companies experiencing a tank car shortage, by putting off any tougher action.

"The industry, and this is mainly the oil industry, wants to double the fleet before they take these DOT-111s off the rails,” she says. “So, they want to add more than 60,000 tank cars - and then remove and retrofit the DOT-111s."

The Transportation Department estimates 15 rail accidents a year involving oil spills with the current fleet of tank cars, and 10 major rail disasters over a 20-year period.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - MD