These tankers have been called the weak link in rail safety and authorities wanted the defects fixed two decades ago, yet they continue to carry dangerous materials through our neighborhoods.
With the recent U.S. oil boom, the amount of crude transported by these tankers has more than doubled just in the last year; increasing the odds of another deadly accident, like the one in Canada last summer.
On July 6 in Lac Megantic, Quebec, 72 tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and 47 people perished.
"There have been many people saying for a long time that those cars should simply not be carrying the kinds of hazardous cargo that they are because they are rigid, they are prone to derail, they are prone to puncture," said Lloyd Burton, Ph.D., CU-Denver School of Public Affairs.
For decades, U.S. safety investigators found fault with these tank cars known as DOT-111's and recommended fixes to make them safer.
A 1991 report by the National Transportation and Safety Board (Read full report here: Part 1, Part 2) looked at 45 rail accidents and cites DOT-111's as "inadequate" to safely transport hazardous materials such as crude and ethanol. The liquids would not have leaked or caught fire if the derailed tank cars had been "better equipped."
Investigators ruled the 2009 derailment in Rockford was caused by Canadian National's failure to notify the train crew that an area of tracks had washed out. One person died.
The 2012 NTSB report on Rockford restated: "inadequate design" of the DOT-111 tank cars is blamed for the "catastrophic loss of hazardous materials during the derailment."
"The shields on either end of the car are not strong enough and not thick enough, so that when the train derails and the cars start rear-ending each other, the couples are piercing the end of the tank car," said Burton.
One change that came out of the Rockford derailment: the 111-model tank cars built after 2011 do have safety design improvements recommended by the NTSB.
"That may account for 25% of the cars that are running currently, so the rest of those DOT-111s that are out there carrying ever increasing numbers of crude oil are the defective ones," said Karen Darch, Barrington Village President.
Karen Darch, Village President of Barrington, is part of a group petitioning the government to safety retrofit older tank cars-- at an estimated cost of more than $1 billion. Darch testified at a public hearing in Washington in late August.
"Federal regulators really owed it to the folks of the country to look at this issue seriously and require a change," said Darch.
The tracks cut right through Barrington. A derailment involving hazardous materials could be devastating here.
"It's a very constant, potential danger," said Tom Weisner, Aurora Mayor.
West suburban Aurora has two major rail lines running through town.
"We have invested a lot of faith and confidence, not to mention tax dollars, in our federal regulators and one would think they would see fit to take care of this problem," said Mayor Weisner.
This side rail yard not far from the Aurora/Eola border highlights a potential problem if there is a derailment here. Not far from the tracks is a propane gas company.
"There is a weak link, that is, the DOT-111 tank car that can rupture," said Mayor Weisner.
Fixing the more than 70,000 tankers would slow down the sale of crude oil.
"These cars shouldn't be carrying this cargo until retrofitted. If that means there won't be as many cars in service, so be it," said Burton.
Government rail safety agencies turned down the I-Team's requests for interviews.
But in a statement, say: "We continuously review and revise safety standards to ensure the safe transport of people and freight."
The Association of American Railroads points out that 99.9 percent of all rail hazmat shipments reach their destinations without spilling any dangerous liquids. But it's the fraction that keeps Barrington Village President Darch up at night.
"Known defects, known problem. It's time for a regulatory change," said Darch.
Engineers carry a paper list of what the rail cars are carrying. The government is being asked to require electronic versions so emergency crews immediately know what they are dealing with if there is an accident. Regulators are also considering new rules to make tankers safer.
PHMSA has extended the filing deadline for public comment to December 5 for the following reason: "We received a request to extend the comment period by 90-days from the Sierra Club on behalf of Climate Parents, Columbia Riverkeeper, ForestEthics, Friends of Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oil Change International, San Francisco Baykeeper, Spokane Riverkeeper, Washington Environmental Council, and the Waterkeeper Alliance. The request indicates that the primary basis for extension is to allow the public a meaningful review of these proposed changes in rail safety, especially regarding tank cars transporting crude oil and tar sands while highlighting several recent tank car incidents. The request also indicates that the recent government shutdown prevented communication with DOT staff for review of the technical proposals during the initial 60-day comment period.
Although PHMSA normally considers an initial 60-day comment period sufficient time to review and respond to rulemaking proposals, due to PHMSA's desire to collect meaningful input from a number of potentially affected stakeholders, PHMSA is consenting to the commenter request to extend the comment period to ensure sufficient time for public review. However, we do not consider a 90-day extension to be warranted. Accordingly, in the interest of moving this rulemaking action forward in a timely manner, we believe, extending the comment period by 30 days would allow sufficient to time to conduct a thorough review."
Information on public comment period
NTSB 2012 report on 2009 Rockford derailment
NTSB 1991 Safety Study report: Part 1, Part 2
Full Statement from Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration:
Every day, nearly a million shipments of hazardous materials are moved across the country and virtually all of them arrive safely without incident. Safety is our number one priority, and 2012 was the safest year in railroading history. Over the last ten years, the number of train accidents involving hazardous materials has declined by 16 percent. We have a rigorous safety program in place that requires regular audit inspections and enforcement actions, and we're constantly reviewing and re-evaluating our work to ensure the public's safety. We continuously review and revise safety standards to ensure the safe transport of people and freight, regardless of which mode of transportation freight shippers choose. Whether they choose rail or pipeline, shippers are required to adhere to stringent safety protocols.
Earlier this year, PHMSA issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking asking for comments on how they can improve the transportation of hazardous materials, including improvements to the design of the DOT-111 tank car. PHMSA's September 5, 2013 press release and Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) provide more information. Current regulations require rail tank cars transporting flammable liquids, including crude oil, to meet specific safety standards, covering both construction and operational requirements as we move forward with developing new regulations for rail tank car transportation, including DOT-111 tank cars. This proposed rulemaking is open for public comment until November 5, 2013.
In early August, PHMSA met with its Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) hazardous materials counterparts to address the issue of accurate labeling along with other issues. Recently, the Department of Transportation launched an inspection operation to verify that shippers and rail carriers are properly classifying crude oil in accordance with federal regulations. 'Operation Classification' primarily targets shipments from the Bakken region and includes unannounced spot inspections, data collection and sampling, as well as verifying compliance with federal safety regulations. These activities began in late August and are still underway. Shippers and rail carriers found to be out of compliance with hazardous materials regulations could be fined or placed out of service.
Gordon "Joe" Delcambre Jr
Public Affairs Specialist
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE, E27-324
Washington, DC 20590