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Stricter rules: Feds seek tougher oil-train regulations

A train carrying oil rolls down the tracks on July 7 west of South Heart, N.D.(April Baumgarten / Forum News Service)

Grand Forks, ND - The federal government on Wednesday proposed stricter rules for trains hauling crude oil after several derailments led to spills and explosions, including one near Casselton.

These new regulations could include the phasing out of old tanker cars over a two-year period, decreasing speed limits for trains hauling oil, tightening braking requirements, requiring mandatory testing of oil and other volatile liquids, and implementing new design standards for tanker cars.

Both of North Dakota’s U.S. senators are viewing the U.S. Department of Transportation’s proposal as a step in the right direction. But industry stakeholders, such as the state’s top oil regulator, Lynn Helms, and the Railway Supply Institute Committee on Tank Cars, said they want to further examine the options in the plan.

North Dakota environmentalists, including one in Grand Forks, are calling for even more rigid rules.

The state has a huge stake in the proposed rules. It’s the second largest producer of crude oil in the country, and much of that oil is transported by railcars that sometimes roll through populated areas.

The number of railcars carrying oil in the U.S. is estimated to have grown by more than 6,000 percent from 2007 to 2013, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Volatile oil

In North Dakota, the Dakota Resource Council has been vocal in the fight against unsafe oil transportation.

Scott Skokos, a Grand Forks-based senior organizer for the organization, said that while he’s happy with the proposed rules, they still aren’t enough.

He singled out the proposed two-year phase-out of old rail cars, some of which were built in the 1960s.

“With the two-year phase-out, the Bakken is going to be drilling vastly in two years and in some ways it’s too late,” he said. “Keeping them on the rails is dangerous.”

The proposed rules include a 40-mph speed limit that could be applied everywhere, in only high-threat urban areas or in areas with at least 100,000 people. Fargo is the only city in the state that qualifies for the last option.

But U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said some trains already slow down in heavily populated areas at their own discretion and that they will “err on the side of safety.”

At a news conference Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the government’s testing showed crude oil from the Bakken formation of North Dakota and Montana was more volatile, meaning it’s more likely to ignite if spilled.

This comes after several derailments involving North Dakota oil, which resulted in spills and explosions. The derailment of about a dozen railcars just outside Casselton in December, for example, caused several explosions, forcing the town’s residents to evacuate. An explosion caused by a derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013 killed 47.

Safety first

AAR President and CEO Edward Hamberger said the fact that the federal proposal incorporates several of his group’s suggested operating practices demonstrates the railroad industry’s commitment to safety.

“This long-anticipated rulemaking from DOT provides a much-needed pathway for enhancing the safe movement of flammable liquids in the U.S.,” Hamberger said in the written statement. “Railroads are playing a critical role in our country’s progress toward energy independence, moving more energy products like crude oil and ethanol than ever before.”

“I believe we can get to a standard that could work, but there are some options there,” said U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who has supported stricter rail regulations. “Everybody has to weigh in, and the objective is to get something that is comprehensive, workable and of course provides for public safety.”

Stakeholders have 60 days to submit public comment on the proposed rules, and the final regulations will be established in early 2015.

Anna G. Larson

Anna G. Larson is a features reporter with The Forum who writes a weekly column featuring stylish people in Fargo-Moorhead. Larson graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in journalism and joined The Forum in July 2012. She's a Fargo native who enjoys travel, food, baking, fashion, animals, coffee and all things Midwestern. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @msannagrace 

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