Oil tank cars on local railroads are "moving time bombs," declared a sign held by picketers outside Winona City Hall on Monday, where U.S. Representative Tim Walz met with area mayors, fire chiefs, and Minnesota agencies to discuss rail safety. Inside, the tone was calmer, somewhat. "I don't want Winona, or La Crescent, or La Crosse to be added to the list of names" of infamous accidents, said Walz, referring to oil train explosions in Casselton, N.D., and in Canada. With more oil moving by rail, from Winona to Washington, citizens, local leaders, state agencies, federal officials, and industry groups are asking: how can we prevent these sorts of disasters and be ready if they occur?
When the unthinkable happens
"I can go on record and say there is not a department in the state of Minnesota that would be able to put out a Casselton fire," said Winona Fire Chief Curt Bittle. "We don't have the resources."
In the case of such major incidents, Bittle and Walz agreed, outside help would be needed. It is not feasible to equip every fire department along the Mississippi rail corridor to respond to such disasters, they stated. Canadian Pacific Railway and other railroad companies currently help local responders by providing training and equipment. However, Walz discussed the possibility of new federal rules to force railroads to take on more responsibility for rail-related emergencies and to send in response teams when major accidents occur.
Even all of the emergency crews in Winona, Rochester, and La Crosse combined "still may not possess the resources for a major incident," Walz said. He continued, suggesting, "On these catastrophic spills, does there need to be something in place like the pipelines and maritime [industries] where the industry itself drops in the teams that have the capacity to do that?"
That would be a positive step, Bittle agreed, but he noted that local emergency crews would still be alone in the first hours to days of disaster response.
Do not forget to better enable local emergency teams to respond across state lines, urged La Crosse Fire Chief Gregg Cleveland. Red tape at the state level currently keeps emergency responders in Minnesota and Wisconsin from helping each other when accidents occur along the Mississippi, he said. He explained that when they cross state lines, firefighters lose jurisdiction, liability protections, and the legal authority to act.
"We've had situations where there are train derailments north of La Crescent where we waited for pollution and we stood on the bridge waiting for the pollution to come across into Wisconsin so we could do something. To me that's unacceptable," Cleveland said.
An ounce of prevention
According to the AAR, most tank cars used in the U.S. are single-walled DOT-111 models including many of the cars used to haul oil and other flammable liquids. By nature, single-walled tank cars are more susceptible to rupturing in the event of a derailment or collision than more recent models that feature fireproof insulation sandwiched between two steel walls and other safety features — features that keep a crash from turning into a fire and keep a fire from turning into a chain reaction explosion.
The DOT-111s meet federal requirements, but most do not meet the railroad industry's most recent safety guidelines, according to the American Association of Railroads (AAR). In 2011, the AAR voluntarily established higher standards for all new tank cars hauling oil, and in the last year it urged federal regulators to require all oil tank cars to feature double walls, fireproofing, and other safety features, according to AAR statements.
"The industry petitioned the federal government to raise the regulatory standard to match the industry standards for newly-manufactured tank cars," BNSF Railway spokeswoman Amy McBeth explained. She also noted that "railroads do not own the tank cars used to move hazardous materials or crude oil. Customers either own them directly or lease them from leasing companies." McBeth added that railroads are obligated to carry shipping companies' freight, including hazardous materials.
For once, it's a case of "federal regulation being behind the industry," said Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation Freight Rail Office at Monday's meeting.
If he lived in Winona, with oil-bearing trains rumbling by, "I would want to have 1252 cars [double-walled tank cars], no doubt about it," Christianson said. Preventing crashes and derailments is the first step, but if there is an accident, we need tank cars that have the best chance possible of surviving a crash or fire, he said.
Federal regulation alone may not be the fastest way to address the problem, however, Christianson pointed out. Federal rulemaking involves a roughly two-year lag period before the issue is addressed, he explained.
Last week, the AAR said that railroad companies are in discussions with regulators and shippers about changes to federal tank car standards, and the hazardous material classification level used for oil moving by rail.
Railroads volunteer safety efforts
Last week, the AAR announced that U.S. railroad companies have pledged a series of prevention and emergency response efforts. The voluntary measures, developed in conjunction with federal agencies, will help "make a safe rail network even safer," the AAR said. The changes all apply to trains with 20 or more carloads of crude oil and include:
- More frequent track inspections by railroads companies;
- Improved emergency braking systems;
- Lower speeds of 40 miles per hour in major metropolitan areas. In Minnesota, this would only apply to the Twin Cities;
- Increased gifts of tuition for emergency response training for local fire departments;
- New systems to better coordinate emergency response across regions;
- New trackside detection systems to identify mechanical issues.
These changes will "enhance the safety of moving crude oil by rail," said AAR President and CEO Edward Hamberger. Railroad companies will continue working with customers, regulators, communities, and employees "to find even more ways to reinforce public confidence in the rail industry's ability to safely meet the increased demand to move crude oil," he added.
During Monday's meeting, Walz questioned the rationale behind the lower speeds pledged by railroads. "I don't want the public to become cynical that superficial changes were made to satisfy somebody," he said.
Walz is on the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infastructure. The subcommittee is holding a hearing an oil-bearing trains today.
Protesters propose safety measures
The protesters gathered outside city hall Monday submitted their own proposal to improve rail safety and called for Walz and others to take action. Protesters want:
- The immediate phase-out, retrofitting, or retirement of single-walled DOT-111 rail cars;
- Speed limits of 40 miles per hour in rural areas, down from a voluntary speed limit of 50 miles per hour;
- Speed limits of 25 miles per hour in populated areas and "adjacent to all surface waters," a much slower limit that would apply to far more places than that proposed by railroad companies;
- Limits on train sizes of 40 oil-bearing cars per train;
- Require trains to have at least two engineers on board;
- "An immediate, massive federal inspection program" of rail lines with "severe penalties" and strict deadlines;
- Comprehensive federal funding for local emergency response training and equipment.
Federal regulators "should stop all unsafe trains," said protester Irv Balto, of La Crosse. "Eliminate all DOT-111 cars and substitute safe cars," he urged. Although both the protesters' proposal and AAR announcement involved lower speed limits, Balto argued that reducing train speeds does little to improve safety so long as weak DOT-111 cars are in service.
The small group of protesters expressed skepticism that government and industry could be trusted to ensure the safety of citizens, stating that Walz and others have only addressed the issue because of citizen action.
Protesters also criticized the fossil fuel industry broadly. Referring to President Barack Obama's "all of the above" energy policy, former Minnesota state representative Ken Tschumper, of La Crescent, said, "All of the above is a policy of global suicide because of climate change."