Toughen oil train rules

The Obama administration’s proposed new regulations on trains that carry crude oil and other flammable fluids across the country are a major improvement over the outdated federal rules that have contributed to a series of recent oil train crashes in communities from North Dakota to Virginia.

But the new rules are not nearly tough enough, say U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.

The Oregon Democrats are right. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s new oil train safety plan has loopholes large enough, well, to drive an oil train through. Transportation officials should make the important changes that the senators are urging before the new regulations are finalized this fall.

The proposal announced last month includes ridiculously overdue mandates to replace aging, spill-prone rail tank cars during the next two to five years. It would also require railroads to share limited data with state emergency managers, reduce speed limits, improve brakes, and take steps to address the high volatility of crude oil produced in North Dakota’s Bakken region that travels, on average, more than a thousand miles through western states, including Oregon, to coastal refineries.

In a recent meeting with The Register-Guard editorial board, Wyden said the new rules should require disclosure of not just some but all oil train routes to firefighters, medical workers and other first responders. The federal proposal requires only that railroads notify states through which trains are carrying large amounts of volatile crude from North Dakota’s Bakken region. But railroads hauling smaller amounts of crude produced in other regions would have no obligation under the proposed safety plan to notify first responders about those shipments.

It’s a baffling distinction. Federal analysis has shown that Bakken crude is somewhat more volatile than other types of crude, but the proposed federal rules classify all oil shipments as “high-hazard flammable trains.” If a major spill of non-Bakken oil can incinerate a community just as thoroughly as Bakken crude, transportation officials should close the loophole and require notification on all shipments.

The administration should also heed Wyden’s call for a speedier timetable for replacement of aging tank cars with fleets built to the latest safety standards. The senator says manufacturers are capable of meeting the demand. The current proposal also lacks a requirement, which safety advocates have said is essential, that oil producers remove the most volatile gases from their crude before shipping by rail.

The Transportation Department has been working on the new regulations for several years. But the rapid development of domestic oil supplies from the Bakken shale region has clearly caught federal officials unprepared, especially with most of that crude being transported by rail rather than pipeline. The number of oil-carrying cars run by seven major U.S. railroads surged to 407,761 in 2013 from 9,500 in 2008 and totaled 110,164 in the first quarter this year. Millions of gallons of volatile crude are moving each year through not only Portland and rural Columbia River communities, but also through Eugene, Salem, Bend, Gresham and Klamath Falls.

Transportation Department officials should heed Wyden’s and Merkley’s call for tougher rules on oil trains. If they don’t, federal lawmakers should take matters in their own hands and pass legislation providing these essential and common-sense protections.