June 26, 2014

Wyden, Merkley Highlight NTSB’s Call for Expanded Oil Trains Transparency

Washington, D.C. – First responders need more timely and detailed information about crude-by-rail trains in order to better protect communities, according to a letter from the National Transportation Board released today by Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.

The senators urged Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to use the information, recommendations and concerns raised by the NTSB to improve crude-by-rail safety, primarily by requiring increased communication between railroads and local communities, in a letter they sent today.

“As we near the one-year anniversary of the tragic oil train accident in Lac Megantic, Quebec, we remain concerned that first responders in Oregon and elsewhere in the country have inadequate information to protect their communities from potential accidents involving crude-by-rail trains,” the senators wrote.

The NTSB listed several serious crude-by-rail accidents that occurred with trains transporting oil from outside the Bakken region, which includes western North Dakota, eastern Montana, southern Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba. The NTSB also showed that, with the exception of last year’s deadly derailment at Lac Megantic, every accident involving crude oil, ethanol or other flammable materials since 2006 spilled less than 1 million gallons of hazardous materials.

Christopher A. Hart, acting chairman of the NTSB, observed that “accidents involving crude oil or flammable liquids of any kind, especially when these liquids are transported in large volumes such as in unit trains or in blocks of tank cars, can have disastrous consequences, including devastating environmental contamination.”

The senators cited this information in repeating their call to expand the scope of a May 7th emergency order that currently applies only to Bakken shale oil transported in quantities exceeding 1 million gallons. The letter from Acting Chairman Hart was in response to questions the senators sent on June 10.

“Public safety officials should be made aware of all crude-by-rail routes and have the option to access information about all crude-by-rail shipments, regardless of size or origin,” the senators wrote. We believe these examples demonstrate that non-Bakken oil shipments of crude, and crude trains carrying less than 1,000,000 gallons pose an imminent hazard … and deserve inclusion under the May 7, 2014 order.”

The NTSB stated that its investigations into hazardous materials railroad spills showed multiple instances when first responders “did not have all the information necessary to develop the best response plan to protect themselves and their communities.” The NTSB also noted the importance of oil spill planning requirements for railroads, route planning for hazardous materials and the need for railroad companies to play a bigger role in local emergency response planning. Crude-by-rail carloads have increased by 4,000 percent since 2008, according to the Association of American Railroads.

The senators have met with first responders in Oregon who said they need more information to prepare for potential oil train accidents. Wyden and Merkley urged the DOT to expand its emergency order to include notification of crude-by-rail shipments from all regions of the country, not just the Bakken, in a letter last month. 

The NTSB is an independent agency responsible for investigating every accident involving planes and significant train, pipeline, marine and highway transportation accidents. 

Read the NTSB’s response to the senators’ questions from June 10 and the letter they sent to the DOT today.

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