Senators: More scrutiny needed after train explosions

WASHINGTON — Following a series of recent oil-train accidents including a fiery explosion in North Dakota last week, leading Democratic senators on Thursday called on the Obama administration to probe  regulations and safeguards for transporting crude.

Sen. Ron Wyden, the head of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation panel, urged the Transportation and Energy departments to  launch an investigation into the issue.

“The recent derailments and accidents involving crude oil are alarming and demand increased vigilance,” the senators said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “It is imperative that your departments understand and properly evaluate the safety of transporting crude oil by rail.”

Separately, North Dakota’s congressional delegation met with Foxx and the head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Cynthia Quaterman, to press for new rail safety standards.

The surge in oil traveling across North America’s train tracks along with the recent accidents has focused scrutiny on the safety of all forms of crude transport and stoked concerns about the flammability of light sweet crude pulled from North Dakota’s Bakken formation.

No one was injured when BNSF Railway’s train derailed Dec. 30 in Casselton, N.D., igniting oil-carrying tankers and forcing many residents to evacuate.

But in July, 47 people were killed and downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec was devastated when a train carrying crude oil derailed.

Other recent accidents include the November derailment of a crude-carrying train in Alabama and Tuesday’s derailment involving propane and oil cars just 35 miles north of the U.S. border in Canada’s New Brunswick province.

PHMSA, the pipeline safety agency, is drafting stiffer regulations governing rail cars transporting hazardous materials, and on Jan. 2, it warned that Bakken oil may be more flammable than conventional crudes

But some lawmakers fear the regulatory timeline is too slow and want to see industry more quickly adopt tank cars that are more robust than old DOT-111 cars criticized as prone to rupturing.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said the safety provisions “have not been handled with the necessary urgency.”

Heitkamp and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., pressed Foxx and Quarterman for a timeline on the new railcar regulations and details on how regulators are determining speed limits for oil-carrying trains.

Hoeven said after the meeting that “Secretary Foxx recognizes the need for prompt action and personal engagement.”

According to a readout of the meeting provided by Senate staff, Foxx told Hoeven and Heitkamp that he is organizing a meeting with stakeholders next week and hopes to soon provide some guidance on coming standards for new railcars.

Wyden and Rockefeller said they were concerned about improper classification of oil shipments, which can leave rail companies and emergency responders without essential information during emergencies.

They urged the Transportation and Energy departments to work together to evaluate crudes “to understand whether they require special precautions and handling.”

“The federal government must have a thorough understanding of the risks to communities near active oil train routes,” the senators said, “as well as the current and future volumes of oil being transported by rail.”