A major milestone was reached this week in the follow-up to the oil train explosion that killed 47 people last summer in Lac-Megantic, Quebec: Canadian investigators released a final report blaming lax government oversight and poor rail company safety practices for the tragic accident.
But although the Canadian government obviously didn’t fulfill its regulatory responsibilities, Canada is still way ahead of the United States in taking steps to prevent another such tragedy. Canada has banned the most decrepit tank cars; Washington, meanwhile, is calling for a drawn-out retirement and retrofitting process that could keep some of the cars in service until at least 2017. This reluctance to take action is putting U.S. communities so far down the track in terms of improved public safety that they’re almost guaranteed to be left behind.
The train that crashed in Quebec in July 2013 was carrying nearly 2 million gallons of volatile North Dakota crude oil in DOT-111 tanker cars. When derailed, DOT-111 cars are easily punctured or ruptured, making them highly vulnerable to leaks and explosions.
The cars’ flaws were first noted in a National Transportation Safety Board study over 20 years ago. And in 2012, the NTSB concluded that the DOT-111s’ “inadequate design” contributed to the severity of a 2009 oil train derailment in Illinois that killed one person and injured several others.
Because of a spike in U.S. crude oil production, moreover, the number of oil car accidents continues to climb: 116 in 2013, more than double the number of all episodes from 1990 to 2009.
Nonetheless, about 98,000 tank cars are in service – and most don’t have the latest safety features. All 72 cars in the Quebec runaway train, for example, were built to the older standard. So any of the major cities through which this train passed before reaching Lac-Megantic – including Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit – could have been the site of an equally devastating derailment, spill and explosion.
In April, Canada barred 5,000 of the most poorly made, puncture-prone DOT-111s from carrying crude oil and ethanol. But in the United States, all DOT-111s will stay in service until at least 2017, under proposed regulations that call for a two-year phase-out of the cars, effective September 2015, unless they’re retrofitted to comply with new safety standards.
Announced last month by the federal Department of Transportation, the rules would apply only to “high-hazard flammable trains” that carry at least 20 cars of volatile liquids. DOT-111s that haven’t been retrofitted could still be used beyond 2015 on trains with 19 or fewer tank cars – a massive loophole.
The U.S. DOT realizes it’s dangerous to keep shipping volatile crude in substandard rail cars. The agency even said as much in the news release announcing the proposal: “The safety risk presented by transporting Bakken crude oil by rail is magnified both by an increasing volume of Bakken being shipped … throughout the U.S. and the large distances over which the product is shipped.”
To have this knowledge and still fail to act on it is to take a cynical view of the well-being of the people whom the agency is supposed to be protecting – and it gives public service a bad name.