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USA – Train Oil Tank Fire Forces Evacuation of North Dakota Town

USA train fireA train carrying highly volatile crude oil derailed and erupted into flames on Wednesday morning, forcing the evacuation of a small town in North Dakota, according to local and federal officials.

It was at least the sixth oil train accident in North America this year, and like several of those previous accidents, it involved a newer generation of tank cars that were built to be more durable. And it occurred less than a week after the federal government outlined its plans to improve the safety of hazardous train traffic, including the durability of tank cars.

The BNSF-operated train derailed near Heimdal, about 100 miles northeast of Bismarck, resulting in a large fire that involved six tank cars, according to the railroad. There were no injuries.

The cars involved in the crash were all built after 2011 and have more safety features than earlier types, according to BNSF. Similar tank cars, known as CPC-1232s, have exploded in other accidents this year, including the derailment of a CSX-operated train in Fayette County, W.Va., and that of another BNSF-operated train in northern Illinois.

Under the new federal rules issued on Friday by the Department of Transportation, these same tank cars will be allowed to remain in service for another five to eight years. After that, they must either be replaced or retrofitted to a newer federal standard that offers more protection against spills and fires.

Critics, including some safety advocates and lawmakers, have said that this delay only continues a safety hazard, and that the tank cars should be replaced sooner.

“The new rules basically focus on changing these cars in five years, but this will only mitigate the effects of a derailment,” according to Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California who focuses on transportation safety. “But we should be more focused at this point on the root causes of the accidents, on why the trains are derailing, and develop some leading indicators on those.”

Oil companies and railroads, however, say that phasing out cars too quickly will result in shortages of tank car capacity and hinder the flow of oil from North Dakota. Tank cars are typically owned by oil shippers, not railroads.
Railroads have been under pressure to improve the transit of oil shipments from the Bakken shale region. BNSF, for instance, said last year it would acquire 5,000 new CPC-1232 tank cars to replace older cars. Other railroads said they would charge shippers more if they used older tank cars.

With their new rules, which were two years in the making, regulators took a middle-of-the-road approach. They toughened the standards for all tank cars but focused on replacing the oldest tank cars, known as DOT-111s. Those will have to be retired first, by 2018.

But CPC-1232 tank cars — like the ones involved in Wednesday’s crash — can be used until April 2020 for crude oil transportation. There are about 100,000 DOT-111s used to transport oil and ethanol and about 24,000 of the newer CPC-1232s, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board said that in four previous derailments this year, a total of 28 CPC-1232 tank cars had failed, either because the train derailed or because a fire or excessive pressurization caused by high heat made the cars rupture.

The cause of Wednesday’s derailment was not immediately known. Both the NTSB and the Federal Railroad Administration said they planned to investigate the accident, and immediately sent investigation teams to the site.
About 40 people were evacuated from Heimdal, according to local officials. Fire departments and specialized hazardous materials emergency teams that responded to the fire set up a cordon about half a mile away and planned to use foam and water to extinguish the fire.
The train consisted of 109 total cars — 107 loaded with crude oil and two buffer cars with sand, according to BNSF. The engine and cars that were not burning were decoupled from the burning cars, said Cecily Fong, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.

Federal officials have said that Friday’s new rules were not final and that more action would be coming to improve rail safety.

“Today’s incident is yet another reminder of why we issued a significant, comprehensive rule aimed at improving the safe transport of high-hazard flammable liquids,” said Sarah Feinberg, the Federal Railroad Administration’s acting administrator. “The F.R.A. will continue to look at all options available to us to improve safety and mitigate risks.”

But the accident is likely to keep pressure on safety officials as well as railroads. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, praised the Department of Transportation’s action on Friday but said the regulatory schedule would still allow dangerous cars to remain on the tracks for too long.

Similar criticism came from various environmental advocates, who also pointed out that the latest accident was a signal that the latest rules were inadequate. “D.O.T.’s new industry-pleasing rule is too weak and too slow,” according to EarthJustice. “We need to get these exploding death trains off the tracks now.”

At the same time, railroads and tank car manufacturers have expressed concerns about the new federal rules, which they say will increase costs. The industry is especially unhappy with a provision to require tank cars to be equipped with electronically controlled brakes. Analysts expect that provision will most likely be challenged by the railroads, which have argued that these brakes are not particularly effective but would impose unreasonable costs on them.
The Association of American Railroads said it was still reviewing the new rules.

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