Battle Over New Oil Train Standards Pits Safety Against Cost Against the backdrop of several fiery derailments, safety advocates are questioning whether new federal rules meant to prevent incidents go far enough. Opponents say the new rules are too costly.
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Battle Over New Oil Train Standards Pits Safety Against Cost

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Battle Over New Oil Train Standards Pits Safety Against Cost

Battle Over New Oil Train Standards Pits Safety Against Cost

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We will report next on the effort to regulate railroads. The federal government wants to prevent explosive oil train derailments. Neither the industry nor safety advocates like how this is going. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Since Valentine's Day, five trains carrying North Dakota Bakken crude oil have derailed and exploded into flames in the U.S. and Canada. No one was hurt in the incidents in Mount Carbon, W. Va., and Northern Ontario in February, in Galena, Ill., and Northern Ontario in March and in Heimdal, N.D., last month. But each of those fiery train wrecks occurred in lightly populated areas. Scores of oil trains also travel through dense cities, particularly here, Chicago, the nation's railroad hub.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAILCARS)

SCHAPER: At least 40 trains carrying Bakken crude roll through the city each week on the BNSF railway's tracks alone, passing right by apartment buildings, homes, businesses and even schools.

CHRISTINA MARTINEZ: Well, just imagine the carnage.

SCHAPER: Christina Martinez is standing alongside the BNSF tracks in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood where a long train of black tank cars is slowly rolling by St. Procopius, the school her 6-year-old attends.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, just the other the day, they were playing soccer at my son's school on Saturday. And I saw the train go by, and it had the 1267, you know, the red marking.

SCHAPER: The railroad tag cars carrying hazardous materials have diamond-shaped red placards indicating their contents - 1267 signifies crude oil.

MARTINEZ: And I was like, oh, my God, can you imagine if it would derail and explode right here while these kids are playing soccer and all the people around there?

SCHAPER: New federal rules require stronger tank cars for crude oil and other flammable liquids, phasing out older models that more easily rupture. But Martinez and others wanted rules limiting the volatility of what's going into those tank cars, too. Oil from North Dakota has a combustible mix of natural gases, including butane, methane and propane. North Dakota requires the conditioning of the gas and oil at the wellhead so the vapor pressure is below 13.7 pounds per square inch before it's shipped. But even at that level, oil from derailed tank cars has exploded into flames. Lora Chamberlain of the group Chicagoland Oil by Rail wanted federal regulators to require even lower pressure.

LORA CHAMBERLAIN: We don't want these bomb trains going through our neighborhood. De-gasify this stuff and so we're really, really upset at the feds - the Department of Transportation - for not addressing this in these new rules.

SCHAPER: Others criticize the rules for giving shippers three to five years to either strengthen or replace the weakest tank cars. Paul Berland lives near the busy railroad tracks in suburban Elgin.

PAUL BERLAND: The rules won't take effect for many years. They're still playing Russian roulette with our communities.

SCHAPER: A coalition of environmental groups sued, alleging that loopholes could allow some dangerous tank cars to remain on the tracks for up to a decade. At the same time, an oil industry group is challenging the new regulations in court, too, arguing that manufacturers won't be able to build and retrofit tank cars fast enough to meet the new requirements. And even the railroad industry is taking legal action against the new rules.

ED HAMBERGER: The one that we have real problems with is requiring something called ECP brakes - they're electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.

SCHAPER: Ed Hamberger heads the Association of American Railroads and says the new braking system the government is mandating is unproven.

HAMBERGER: They do not claim that ECP brakes would prevent one accident. Their entire safety case is based on the fact that ECP brakes are applied a little bit more quickly than the current system.

SARAH FEINBERG: It's not unproven at all.

SCHAPER: Acting Federal Railroad administrator Sarah Feinberg.

FEINBERG: I do understand that the railroad industry views it as costly. I don't think it's particularly costly, especially when you compare it to the cost of a really significant incident with the train carrying this product.

SCHAPER: Feinberg says her agency is still studying whether to regulate the volatility of crude. But some in Congress don't think this safety matter can wait. They're sponsoring legislation to force producers to condition the oil further to make it less explosive before shipping it on the nation's rails. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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