MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada are taking the unprecedented step of jointly calling for tougher standards for trains carrying oil. Both agencies have investigated explosive train wrecks recently, including the one in Canada last year that killed 47 people. With the huge increase in oil moving across North America by train, the agencies warn another major disaster could be looming. NPR's David Schaper reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
(SOUNDBITE OF 911 CALL)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: 9-1-1. What's the object of your emergency?
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The calls starting coming into the 911 Center in Cass County, North Dakota at about 10 minutes after two on the afternoon of December 30th.
(SOUNDBITE OF 911 CALL)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's about a quarter mile west of Casselton on the railroad tracks. We've got a train that derailed and there's a fire.
SCHAPER: An eastbound train carrying Bakken crude oil hit a grain train that had just derailed, and soon, one tank car after another exploded into flames, generating even more calls.
(SOUNDBITE OF 911 CALL)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: There's, like, huge black smoke. I don't know if somebody's house is on fire.
SCHAPER: Twenty-four hundred residents nearby were forced to evacuate as the wreckage continued to burn through the night and all the next day. It's one of a series of explosive oil train crashes, including one in Alabama last November, and another last July in a small town in Quebec that killed 47 people. The number of trains carrying Bakken crude oil has skyrocketed from fewer than 10,000 tank car loads in 2009 to more than 400,000 last year. And that worries people who live near the tracks.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE KENTON ONSTAD: We are going to have a derailment somewhere.
SCHAPER: Kenton Onstad is a state representative from the Western part of North Dakota
ONSTAD: Are we ready for that? Emergency services ready for that? This is not a case of if it's going to happen, it's when it's going to happen.
SCHAPER: Onstad is one of a growing number of local and state officials demanding new safety improvements. And among those leading the chorus is the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Debbie Hersman.
DEBBIE HERSMAN: We believe action is needed and it's needed now.
SCHAPER: One problem, says Hersman, is that this oil from the Bakken Shale formation of North Dakota is not like other crudes. It's lighter and its volatile natural gases tend to ignite easily. So, the NTSB wants to ensure its properly classified to be certain it's shipped and handled properly. In addition, Hersman says the older tank cars that carrying much of this flammable crude are inadequate and prone to rupture easily.
HERSMAN: We want to make sure that if there is a derailment, if there is a collision, that these tank cars maintain their integrity because once we see a failure of a tank car, it starts a pool fire and it just spreads to the other tank cars.
SCHAPER: In the North Dakota crash, for example, 18 of the 20 tank cars that derailed ruptured and most of them burned. The railroads, the shippers and energy companies all agree there needs to be new regulations and they support many of the recommendations from the NTSB. In fact, since 2011, the rail industry itself has already been requiring that new tank cars be stronger and more puncture resistant. But there's disagreement on whether to retrofit or phase out older cars. Railroads and car manufacturers support it but those who own and fill the cars do not. Retrofitting could cost billions and energy producers say there's no guarantee retrofits will work. Here's Rayola Dougher of the American Petroleum Institute.
RAYOLA DOUGHER: You know, the cars themselves are not the cause of the accident. The cause is they're going off the track. The cause is operational or someone's not putting a brake on. So, that really should be a key focus of enhancing the safety.
SCHAPER: Where everyone in the business and even the NTSB agree is that the Department of Transportation has been too slow to enact new standards and regulations to meet new oil shipping demands. DOT would not make anyone available for comment for this story but issued a statement saying work on the NTSB recommendations is already underway. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx met last week with railroad and petroleum industry leaders, who agreed on some immediate steps to improve the safe transport of crude. Additional steps can be expected in the coming days and weeks. David Schaper, NPR News.