Global Partners, the company that runs a crude oil facility in Albany, announced April 30 it will no longer accept shipments of Bakken crude oil in DOT-111 tank cars, the kind that exploded and burned almost a year ago in Quebec in a disaster that killed 47 people. Beginning June 1, the company will require that all oil shipments arriving at its facility on the Hudson must be transported in tank cars known by the industry standard “CPC-1232.”
But according to several rail safety experts, this is a distinction without meaning.
Fred Millar, a well regarded independent rail safety expert based in Virginia, says the change is “not a significant improvement in safety.” The CPC-1232, according to federal officials, is a DOT-111 car that has undergone some upgrades that are not likely to the prevent tank punctures that could lead to fires and explosions.
Karl Alexy is the staff director for the Federal Railroad Administration’s Hazardous Materials Division, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Asked if the shift to a CPC-1232 standard represents an improvement in public safety, Alexy responds hesitantly.
“This is one of the most important questions that hasn’t been asked,” he said by phone from his office in Washington. “This is a touchy subject. CPC-1232 is an industry standard. It is a DOT-111 car that meets a more robust standard, but it is a voluntary industry standard. It’s a DOT-111 that the industry has passed through a more robust level of scrutiny.”
Alexy says that the difference includes the addition of a shield, which covers only the bottom half of the tank car, and the strengthening of the tanker car shell by 1/16th of an inch. The puncture velocity – the speed at which the tank could be ruptured by an accident – would not differ greatly between a DOT-111 and a CPC-1232, according to Alexy.
Alexy’s boss, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, remains “unconvinced” that the upgrade will ensure public safety.
“I don’t have confidence in the DOT-111,” Foxx told Rachel Maddow on May 14. “And I’m unconvinced that the 1232 is the absolute solution.”
Foxx said “there needs to be a new type of tank car” if volatile crude is to be shipped safely. Foxx and Maddow noted that the train cars that recently derailed, caught fire and spilled crude oil into the James River in Lynchburg, Va., were CPC-1232 cars.
About 400,000 rail cars transport crude oil across the country, most of it to Pacific ports. CSX ships as many as 14 trains daily through Syracuse to the Global Partners facility in Albany. To replace all of those cars with safer tankers would take many years, according to Larry Mann, the principal author of the Rail Safety Act of 1970 and an industry consultant. Regulations call for phasing out DOT-111 cars ordered (not manufactured) after October 2011. At present there is an 18-month production backlog for tanker cars, which means that DOT-111 cars manufactured as late as mid 2013 could still be used to ship Bakken oil.
Common Council Weighs In
On May 27, the Syracuse Common Council passed a resolution urging the federal government to take steps to protect Syracusans from the dangers of the flammable crude and ethanol being transported in DOT-111 cars.
According to its primary sponsor, Councilor-at-Large Jean Kessner, the resolution, approved unanimously, is just a first step. Though the resolution is non-binding, Kessner plans to follow it up with meetings of the Neighborhood Preservation Committee that she chairs. Kessner acknowledged that only the federal government can regulate the railroads, but she believes the city has a role to play.
“The Common Council can only do things that we have control over,” she says. “We have control over environmental impact statements, which is in our comprehensive plan. I’m going to have a committee meeting, have people from the county and the city to talk about what this stuff is, and with what frequency it’s coming through our town.”
Complaining that local communities and their first responders are “kept in the dark” with regard to the contents of each rail shipment, the resolution applauds the efforts of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to bring attention to the issue and supports Schumer’s call for stronger standards for rail cars shipping crude oil and ethanol.
“Time is of the essence for the federal government to address this important issue,” says the resolution, which also calls on railroads to notify the Syracuse Fire Department when dangerous shipments come through.
CSX Safety Trains Set to Visit Central New York
Meanwhile, CSX, the railroad company that ships Bakken crude through Syracuse, has initiated a training program for local first responders. According to a CSX release issued April 24, the CXS “Safety Train” is a “rolling classroom” featuring “specialized hands-on training.”
“This CSX Safety Train will begin in mid-May visiting numerous communities in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois,” says the company. “The company’s enhanced training program offers firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians and other first responders insights on how rail cars work and how to deal with rail incidents. This year, in light of increased crude oil movements on our network, we have expanded our engagement with first responders and emergency personnel along key routes to include training specific to crude oil movements.”
The CSX Safety Train is comprised of a locomotive, four tank cars, one flat car equipped with tank car valves and fittings, two classroom cars and a caboose. CSX hazardous material specialists will lead training sessions with instruction on how crude oil is shipped.
No word yet from the Syracuse Fire Department as to whether it will be participating.
According to Minoa Fire Chief Erich Schepp, the Safety Train will be in Syracuse June 19- 21.