Blogs > Docket > Tell DOT: Rewrite Rules on Bomb Train Safety and Spill Response

Tell DOT: Rewrite Rules on Bomb Train Safety and Spill Response


Photo: Matt Kierstead
View more images on our Flickr site

Jump to sample letter

Photo: Matt Kierstead

Photo: Matt Kierstead

The U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed two new measures intended to reduce the risk of derailment in trains hauling crude oil or other hazardous cargo, and respond to spills from the same trains.

Neither proposal goes far enough, fast enough to protect public health and the environment.

The stakes are high. Repeated crude oil train derailments coinciding with the spike in crude oil shipments has led to the loss of 47 lives in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013, and an oil spill in Lynchburg, Va., in April 2014 that set the river on fire.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) proposed rule on tank car design and operations is riddled with loopholes and unsubstantiated assumptions that will result in not a single faulty DOT-111 car being entirely removed from the rails, despite stating flatly that DOT-111 tank cars “can almost always be expected to breach in the event of a train accident resulting in car-to-car impacts or pileups.”

Moreover, while the proposed rule claims that there will be high costs to these changes but low benefits, it can only conclude so because the agency failed to include in the cost of oil spills and explosions things like lost life and environmental impacts.

Up to 40 trains, each carrying up to 120 rail cars with 30,000-gallons of crude oil each, run through the Hudson Valley every week. The extraordinary risks demand aggressive action.

Help us send a clear message to the U.S. DOT that it must finally bring transparency and safety to rail shippers through a comprehensive rewriting of its proposals.

The deadline for action is September 30, 2014. Please make your voice heard.


IMPORTANT: To effectively take action, please copy, paste and personalize this letter, and submit it to the DOT twice – once to each docket, PHMSA-2012-0082 (HM-251) and PHMSA-2014-0105 (HM-251B).

I’m writing to express my grave concerns about two proposals by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) – on oil train operations, design, and, on a separate docket, oil spill response planning.

Operations and Design (DOCKET #PHMSA-2012-0082 (HM-251))

Most concerning is that PHMSA recognizes that DOT-111 “tank cars can almost always be expected to breach in the event of a train accident resulting in car-to-car impacts or pileups,” and yet the agency admits that this rule wouldn’t take these (and other poorly performing, unsafe cars) off the rails – instead, over 23,000 of these cars would be used to transport tar sands oil. In order to protect people, communities, and the environment, the rule should:

1. Immediately ban DOT111 tank cars from use in moving any amount of hazardous materials. PHMSA leaves these cars on the rails and only proposes regulating trains with more than 20 railcars! Oil spills from one car can be disastrous, let alone 19. With these proven-dangerous cars still on the rails, and in use for hazardous material transport, everything is still at risk.

2. Choose a new tank car design based on safety, not on cost.
Recognizing that no design can protect against all dangers, and no add-on feature can withstand the most severe accident, the agency must still choose the best level of protection, not the one that allows the industry to save the most money on safety upgrades.

3. Address key causes of rail disasters: the size of trains, aging infrastructure and human error. The proposed rule describes the most common causes of hazardous train derailments but fails to propose any solutions (such as limits on the number of cars permitted in each unit train, improvements to infrastructure inspection and repair protocol, or better personnel management and oversight). PHMSA notes that one study found that broken rails or welds alone accounted for a yearly average of 670 derailments over a 10-year period, far exceeding the 89 average derailments per year for all other causes; inexplicably, PHMSA is taking no action to address these significant risks; seemingly considering the status quo acceptable.

4. Prevent derailments and spills everywhere, instead of just in the most densely populated cities. The rules as written suggest route, speed and braking changes for reducing risk to communities of greater than 100,000 people. These protections should be afforded all communities, as well as sensitive environments like critical habitats and drinking water watersheds. PHMSA doesn’t have the authority to knowingly put people at risk solely because of where they live.

5. Require full public disclosure of all hazardous rail shipments. As written, the rules propose exempting trains with fewer than about 35 cars from disclosing to first responders where and how often the trains are running. Disclosure should not be limited to these long trains; all shipments of hazardous products, regardless of classification and including heavy crude oils like Canadian tar sands, present dangers that must be planned for and addressed publicly.

6. Consider the full cost of derailments and spills to communities and the environment, not just to industry. PHMSA recognizes that it can’t adequately estimate how much an oil disaster will “cost” yet proposes no solutions. As such, the cost-benefit calculations in the proposal underestimate benefits of safety improvements by failing to account for long-term human and ecological safety.

7. Require third-party testing, strict records keeping and central reporting of derailments. The proposal does nothing to remedy a dysfunctional and unacceptably ignored reporting system. Right now, agencies don’t keep full records of spills, require crude oil testing results to be kept by the oil companies, or review disaster reports to ensure their completeness. The status quo is unacceptable. The rule should require third-party testing, strict records keeping and the creation of a single, publicly available database for all derailments and hazardous materials spills, containing thorough, frequently updated and vetted information on the nature, cause, type, and outcome of all derailments and oil releases.

Spill Response Planning (DOCKET NO. PHMSA-2014-0105 (HM-251B))

PHMSA also fails to adequately require shippers to prepare for spill response. Railroads should be required to develop comprehensive spill response plans for any and all rail lines transporting any quantity, any kind of hazardous cargo. Area-specific comprehensive plans should be required for each and every inland or coastal area with an EPA or Coast Guard Area Contingency Plan through which the rails run.

To address specifically PHMSA’s request to help set thresholds for comprehensive oil spill response plans (OSRPs), all rail routes over which even trains with one car of hazardous materials should be subject to the rule.

(Your Name)

Tell Gov. Hochul to block invasive species at the Erie and Champlain canals
Become a Member