Comments on Shipping Oil & Gas by Rail Rulemaking

Current regulation over transportation of fossil-fuels by rail unnecessarily threatens the well-being of Montana’s citizens, communities, and environment.

In response to the numerous failures of oil-by-rail transport systems in the past year, federal agencies decided to update their rules so as to better protect communities. Here in Southwest and West-Central Montana, several population centers have railroads in or along their outskirts. Traditionally railroads carried all types of commerce; more recently, railroads have begun shipping incredibly hazardous, explosive, and flammable products such as crude oil. Yet rules concerning safety and public health over rail transport were never updated!

Click here to see an interactive map of potential blast zones in your community – the results for a 59715 zip code are scary, and demand action!

Domestic crude oil, more flammable and volatile than heavier crude, is being fracked at an accelerating pace, and much of it is being delivered by rail in outdated and substandard tank cars (DOT 111s). According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), crude-by-rail has increased 423% between 2011 and 2012 and in 2013 the number of rail carloads of crude oil surpassed 400,000; ethanol production has similarly increased.

Combined with deteriorating infrastructure, weak safety rules, accelerated speeds, poor testing and monitoring of tank contents,  and inadequate government oversight and corporate accountability, our communities are threatened everywhere tracks run, yet people don’t even know about it!

In fact, the railroads and in most states, the government, is keeping the train routes and schedules secret for trumped up “security” reasons, leaving us all in the dark about what is streaming through our cities and neighborhoods, over our rivers and across the countryside.
 Unfortunately, the harms don’t end there. Fracking for oil in Montana, North Dakota, and other domestic shale plays such as the Piceance in Colorado and the Utica in Ohio has mushroomed beyond environmental controls, resulting in air and water pollution at its source.

The processing of this oil, rich in volatile organic compounds, is contributing polluting air emissions from the refineries, terminals, and processing facilities on the receiving end and threatening our waterways when finished products are shipped out of our ports or passed on through pipelines. In the end, the development of fracked oil has a heavy environmental footprint from its source, through its transport (whether by rail or pipeline) to its end use and final market, polluting at every step and contributing heavily to the fossil fuel acceleration of climate change.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is  concerned about the harmful impacts of oil and gas trains on our communities, families, and local environment.  The proposed regulations do not provide the safety and pollution prevention measures that are needed to protect us all from the hazardous materials that are being transported. Citizens and communities in Montana are being unnecessarily exposed to increasing safety risks, hazardous pollution, and the threat of catastrophe, as is evidenced by the dramatic increase in derailments involving flammable liquids that is discussed in the proposed rulemaking and in public media. It is not acceptable that Montana citizens are put at risk while private interests profit from the lack of adequate regulation and controls.

In response we and several other concerned Waterkeeper organizations with communities that are likewise subjected to constant threats from oil and gas rail transport submitted this comment letter aiming to improve the proposed rules: Comments.PHMSA_.WKOs-Oct-1-2014.pdf.

If you’re not inclined to read the whole comment letter, below is a summary of needed changes that would improve the proposed rules:

•    Immediate prohibition of DOT 111s and all substandard tank cars to carry hazardous materials that are not built to the highest safety specifications for these flammable and volatile liquids.

•    Tank car design should require the highest level of safety equipment, designed to protect the public and the environment, not based on cost to the carriers. The proposed rulemaking’s cost-benefit analysis does not fully reflect public costs and the long-term costs and impacts on air, water, natural systems, and future generations.

•    Limiting the number of tank cars in a train carrying these flammable and volatile liquids and routing them away from populated areas and sensitive environmental and community features. Communities should be able to refuse these high hazard trains being routed through. The carriers should not be allowed to go wherever they want – the record shows they are not reliably safe and have exposed many communities to harm, as evidenced by the increase in accidents and derailments (PHMSA proposed rulemaking Table 3 and pages 10-12).

•    Slow these trains down!  Accidents are worse at high rates of speed and the likelihood of punctures increase with speed, making fire and catastrophe more likely, resulting in greater harm to people and the environment.

•    Strict testing, monitoring and reporting of what is being carried, ensuring its accurate classification and characterization to ensure proper tanks and equipment are used and appropriate routes and scheduling are employed, with pollution prevention and community protection as the first priority. This should not be left up to the carriers themselves, but requires independent oversight and reporting of data on publicly accessible web platforms.

•    Strict oversight of makeup and volume of contents of the tanks to avoid overfilling, spills and accidents. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) reports crude oil is leaked through the top valves and fittings when overloaded, accounting for 98% of non-accident releases by commodity in 2012.

•    Put the brakes on!  The proposal is for braking changes only for communities of 100,000 people or more and if the carrier stays below 30 mph, they can avoid mandatory braking systems. Redundant and the most effective brakes must be required for all carriers to protect all communities and is essential to prevent derailments and accidents.

•    Full disclosure of all contents of tanks cars is essential.

  •     First, companies must tell the regulators what is in the material being carried. PHMSA reports corrosion and compromise of equipment due to chemicals used in fracking that are carried into the fracked oil or gas yet companies refuse to fully disclose frack formulas. If all contents are known interior coatings, special O-rings, and other alternative tank construction materials could be required, avoiding or reducing leaked pollution incidents.
  •     Second, emergency responders need a complete listing not simply a summary sheet of the contents so they know how to respond to an event and the protective gear needed. They need to know if any amount of flammable hazardous material is traveling through because there is no inconsequential tank car breach or explosion. The proposed rule only requires notification for trains carrying 1 million gallons or more of flammable hazardous material (about 35 tank cars) to emergency management teams.
  •     Third, people who live within the potentially affected zone around train routes need to know what is traveling through their communities and over their water supplies, where it will pass through and when so they can make decisions about personal exposure. Leaving people in the dark victimizes communities and unjustly takes away personal rights.