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Railroads, Transportation Dept. agree on ways to make crude shipments safer

A BNSF Railway trahauls crude oil near Wolf Point Mont. | AP file photo

A BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Mont. | AP file photo

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Updated: February 21, 2014 11:28AM



BILLINGS, Mont. — Railroads that haul volatile crude shipments have reached an agreement with U.S. transportation officials to adopt wide-ranging voluntary safety measures after a string of explosive and deadly accidents.

A copy of the agreement between the U.S. Transportation Department and the Association of American Railroads was obtained Friday by The Associated Press.

It calls for railroads to slow down oil trains through major cities, increase track inspections and bolster emergency response planning along routes that carry trains hauling up to 3 million gallons of oil each. Those trains now pass regularly from oil producing areas to coastal refineries.

It was not immediately clear how the agreement would be enforced, and it did not address concerns over another fuel, ethanol, that’s also seen a spate of accidents as production has increased. Nor does it deal with design flaws in tens of thousands of tank cars that make them prone to rupture during derailments.

BNSF Railway Co. announed Thursday it intended to buy a fleet of 5,000 strengthened tank cars to haul oil and ethanol in a move that would set a higher safety standard for a fleet that’s seen multiple major accidents.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel in January threw his support behind a plan to slap a “hazardous materials transportation fee” on tank cars stored in or moving through the city, noting 30 percent of the nation’s rail cargo passes through Chicago.

Emanuel and Ald. Edward Burke agreed that recent railcar disasters in North Dakota and Canada were a wake-up call to Chicago.

“With what’s going on throughout the United States in the sense of this energy revolution, we’re going to see more, not less” of these incidents, Emanuel said.

“This natural gas doesn’t just explode. It stays on fire. . . . If there are, God forbid, any accidents, we . . . have to make sure that our police and fire and first-responders have the training and equipment to handle this hazardous material. Should there be a way to finance all of this and make sure we have the type of rail upgrades to prevent these types of accidents?”

At least 10 times since 2008, freight trains hauling oil across North America have derailed and spilled significant quantities of crude, with most of the accidents touching off fires or catastrophic explosions.

The derailments released almost 3 million gallons of oil, nearly twice as much as the largest pipeline spill in the U.S. since at least 1986. And the deadliest wreck killed 47 people in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

“Safety is our top priority, and we have a shared responsibility to make sure crude oil is transported safely from origin to destination,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in an emailed statement. Today’s changes will enhance safety while we continue to pursue our comprehensive approach focused on prevention, mitigation and emergency response through collaboration with our partners.”

Since 2008, the number of tanker cars hauling oil has increased 40-fold, and federal records show that’s been accompanied by a dramatic spike in accidental crude releases from tank cars.

“We share the Administration’s vision for making a safe rail network even safer, and have worked together to swiftly pinpoint new operating practices that enhance the safety of moving crude oil by rail,” said Edward Hamberger, president of the railroad association.



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