Senators call for improved rail safety, communication following Lynchburg derailment

newspaperU.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine called for improved safety for rail shipments of crude oil and increased collaboration with local first responders following last week’s derailment of 17 rail tank cars carrying crude oil in downtown Lynchburg. An estimated 20,000 gallons of crude oil was released into the james river following last week’s derailment and resulting fire. The senators expressed their concerns in a letter today to U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) Secretary Anthony Foxx.

“Our constituents and stakeholders across the country are impacted by crude oil transport and deserve a voice in any potential regulation processes.  We urge the Administration to move forward as quickly as possible with any proposed regulation so that the public can provide input and we can get meaningful safety standards in place,” the Senators wrote.

Additionally, the Senators urged the DoT to better communicate with communities about potentially hazardous materials being shipped by rail.

“Americans deserve to have information about potentially hazardous materials passing through their communities, and emergency personnel must be prepared to act quickly when accidents occur. Our first responders should not have to wait until they show up at an incident to understand the properties and magnitude of any hazardous materials involved,” they wrote.

The letter was also sent to the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, which will have a role in reviewing proposed regulations.  Full text of the letter is below and a PDF is available here.

 

Dear Secretary Foxx:

We write to you to share concerns resulting from the April 30th derailment of a CSX train in Lynchburg, Va., that resulted in a fire in downtown Lynchburg and the discharge of up to 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the James River.

With the rapid growth of U.S. shale oil output in recent years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the transport of crude oil by rail.  Just four years ago, railroads hauled almost no crude oil and in 2013 they transported nearly one-tenth of U.S. crude output, approximately 800,000 barrels per day.  With that increased traffic, we have also seen incidents that have led to calls for an increased focus on rail safety.  The Lynchburg derailment was just the latest in a string of crude-by-rail accidents in North America over the past several months that have caused significant damage and, in some cases, resulted in the tragic loss of life.  These incidents have also had environmental consequences. In fact, more crude oil was spilled in 2013 (1.15 million gallons) than in the previous four decades (800,000 gallons from 1975 to 2012).

These issues have become increasingly urgent in light of the Lynchburg derailment, where 17 cars of a mile-long train carrying 105 cars of crude oil derailed in the middle of downtown Lynchburg.  One or more of the cars ruptured with their contents catching fire, and subsequently fell off the tracks into the James River.  We are fortunate there were no injuries or fatalities, but significant damage was incurred and we still do not know the extent of the water quality issues, which could impact the water supply of downstream populations like Richmond.  We were also lucky.  Had this derailment occurred away from the James River or had the derailed cars simply fallen the other direction, the fire would have been more difficult to contain and could have spread to other cars in the 105 car crude oil unit train.

We understand that DOT has turned its focus recently to addressing rail safety issues resulting from the rapid growth in rail transport of Bakken crude oil.  Although DOT has been discussing potential regulation to address rail safety for more than two years, we have strong concerns that DOT has not yet provided an initial proposal to allow for public comment.  This incident has underscored several of the existing items of concern, while potentially raising new ones.  For instance, preliminary reports indicate that heavy storm conditions may have compromised a segment of trackbed, resulting in the derailment.  This track was in an area inspected by the Federal Railroad Administration just a few months ago, and by CSX just two days before the derailment.  In addition, reports indicate the breached rail car was a newer CPC-1232 model, not an older DOT-111 model, which suggests that investigation is warranted into whether the newer cars are also vulnerable.  Our constituents and stakeholders across the country are impacted by crude oil transport and any potential regulation in this area, and they deserve a voice in the process.  We urge the Administration to move forward as quickly as possible with any proposed regulation so that the public can provide input and we can get meaningful safety standards in place.

We would also urge you to focus on improving training and communication with local first responders.  In January, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that rail operators work with state and local emergency response personnel to provide up-to-date information about crude-oil shipments so that localities can prepare for timely responses when these incidents occur.  Communication requirements are already in place for pipeline and marine operators, and yet small towns across the country have very little or no knowledge as to the contents and timing of crude oil rail shipments that move through their communities.  Americans deserve to have information about potentially hazardous materials passing through their communities, and emergency personnel must be prepared to act quickly when accidents occur. Our first responders should not have to wait until they show up at an incident to understand the properties and magnitude of any hazardous materials involved.

While the development of domestic energy resources is good in many ways for our economy and security, we must ensure that these resources are developed and transported with effective technical safety standards, the highest level of coordination with emergency responders, and the most transparent system to keep our communities informed of potential hazards.  To that end, we request a briefing from appropriate DOT officials to provide detailed information on the status of regulatory proposals on rail safety and what the DOT is doing to implement NTSB’s recommendation of increased communication with localities and first responders.

Thank you for your attention to this matter and we look forward to hearing from your office in order to schedule a briefing on these issues.

Sincerely,
Mark R. Warner
Tim Kaine

         
 

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