New Oil Train Regs Go Backward on Public's Right to Know Risks

May 6, 2015

Since U.S. oil production started booming, the news has been full of tanker trains blowing up right and left. Fireballs towering for days make great TV. But when tank cars derail and ignite in or near towns, people's lives are threatened. The 2014 disaster at Lac-Mégantic in Quebec killed 47 and was a wake-up call.

Under a May 2014 emergency order, the Federal Railway Administration (FRA) increased somewhat the requirements that railroads disclose oil train routes. But a new regulation issued May 1, 2015, leaves the public — and firefighters — with less information about the risks they face.

The new final rule, issued by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in coordination with the FRA (both are arms of the Department of Transportation), would strengthen tanker cars and lower speed limits. But it does not regulate the volatility of oil (which makes fireballs) and rescinds the 2014 requirement that railroads notify state local authorities of the routing, frequency, and amount of oil rail shipments. Some states chose to disclose that information, while others did not.

Railroads have lobbied against disclosure of oil routes — claiming security worries even though no terrorists or saboteurs have been involved in the many safety failures that have endangered people's lives.

The issue is especially explosive in the Pacific Northwest, where state and federal legislators have pushed for more disclosure. Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have sponsored a bill to increase public disclosure of oil train shipments.

The largest union representing firefighters in North America says the lack of disclosure in the new rule not only endangers the public, but the first-responders sent to confront rail disasters.  Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said "these new rules fall short."

Meanwhile, a citizen group in Snohomish County, Washington, has organized to watch the tracks 24 hours a day for a week to count the oil trains.

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