Rail accidents amid state’s oil, gas boom prompt new safety measures from U.S. DOT

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By Jeremy Johnson

WELD COUNTY — The U.S. Department of Transportation July 23 released details of a proposal to improve the safety of rail transportation of flammable materials, including crude oil.

Crude oil spills as a result of rail incidents hit an all-time high in the United States in 2013 as the nation’s industry continued to see a renaissance in exploration and development amid stagnant infrastructure growth. 


In other words, with few pipelines or other means available to transport the commodity, oil and gas companies have increasingly used railways to get their product from point A to point B.

According to the American Association of Railroads, the amount of crude oil carried by freight jumped nearly 75 percent from 2012 to 2013. Other agencies have provided correlating information — in a July 2013 report, the U.S. Energy Information Administration wrote: “With U.S. crude oil production at the highest level in two decades, outstripping pipeline capacity, the (U.S.) is relying more on railroads to move its new crude oil to refineries and storage centers.” 

The result was 1.15 million gallons of crude oil spilled via rail accidents in 2013, far exceeding the 800,000 total gallons spilled in the same manner between 1975 and 2012, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

And more than 5,000 gallons of that crude was spilled in May in Weld County, just west of LaSalle and south of Greeley, when a train leaving Windsor for the East Coast jumped the track for reasons still unknown. In that incident, six cars of a 100-car Union Pacific crude oil train derailed May 9, spilling a little more than 5,000 gallons of oil, some of it into a ditch near the South Platte River.


“Safety is our top priority”

A rallying cry in January by a group of elected officials including U.S. Sen. Mark Udall calling for more regulations regarding freight transport of “explosive materials” turned out to be foreshadowing of things to come in Weld County.

In a letter to the U.S. DOT urging the department to consider updating safety policies concerning transportation of hazardous and explosive materials, Udall pointed out that transport of crude oil by train had “increased exponentially” over the past five years, while safety regulations had not. For instance, Udall said only about 15 percent of the nation’s 94,000 tankers “carrying oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids meet puncture-resistance and other safety standards necessary to avoid the kinds of spills and explosions that have occurred during derailments over the last year.”

Responding to the push from Colorado leaders and representatives from other states (like North Dakota’s Republican Sen. John Hoeven), and in response to large increases in crude oil transport by rail in northern states like North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, U.S. DOT responded in February by saying they would work with “industry stakeholders” in drafting new rules to improve safety. 

Overall, the U.S. DOT said the newly proposed safety improvements were a result of more than 152,000 “commenters” and based heavily on prior published information and safety recommendations from the PHMSA.

According to the July 23 announcement, those improvements include “enhanced car standards, a classification and testing program for mined gases and liquids and new operational requirements for high-hazard flammable trains like braking controls and speed restrictions.” Specifically, the department said they are seeking over the next two years to phase out older tank cars unless those cars are “retrofitted to comply with new tank car design standards.”

  “Safety is our top priority, which is why I’ve worked aggressively to improve the safe transport of crude oil and other hazardous materials since my first week in office,” U.S. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a press release July 23. Foxx was nominated by President Barack Obama to run the department just a year ago. “While we have made unprecedented progress through voluntary agreements and emergency orders, today’s proposal represents our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids … are transported safely.”


agency reactions

Udall commended the proposed regulations just hours after the announcement was made.

“Recent explosions, leaks and other accidents have shown the serious dangers fuel-hauling trains pose to communities throughout Colorado,” he said. “In fact, a fuel-train spill in Weld County (in May) vividly illustrated why … the unveiling of proposed train safety rules today is such good news for Colorado.”

And across the nation, both railroad regulators and oil and gas stakeholders heralded the proposed regulations, as did the majority of politicians and elected officials, according to a report published by Reuters. 

Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, said his organization will continue to work “collaboratively with the rail industry, regulators and first responders toward our goal of zero incidents,” and Association of American Railroads President Edward Hamberger said the rules provide a “much-needed pathway for enhancing the safe movement of flammable liquids in the U.S.”

Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple, whose state of North Dakota happens to be the nation’s largest current producer of oil and gas due to the massive Bakken formation, loosely supported the rules but called for “further review,” while the state’s Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, said the rules are “an important and needed step” toward safety.

Not everyone sees the proposals as a step in the right direction, though. Brigham McCown, a transportation safety and energy infrastructure policy expert and former official for the PHMSA, said the push to phase out older rail cars was politically motivated and “unrealistic,” and Cowen and Co. associate Jason Seidl said that same specific proposal would cause railway congestion resulting in more hazardous materials being transported at one time. He said that, in turn, could cause more accidents rather than reduce them.

Matt Krogh, of environmental watchdog group ForestEthics, called the proposed standards “weak” and said they leave communities and emergency responders “holding the bag.”

“The (Obama) administration seems to have carefully calculated and managed the inconvenience of these rules to the oil industry,” he said. “But they’ve severely underestimated the threat of these trains to the American public.”


Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Johnson at 303-659-2522, ext. 217, or jjohnson@metrowestnewspapers.com.