Feds reject call for fire-resistant crude oil tank cars

Officials said 100 minutes was adequate time for responders to assess an accident and take action

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Federal officials have rejected a call to toughen the fire-resistance of railroad tank cars that carry highly flammable crude oil, hundreds of which pass through the Chicago area each day.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is standing by its decision issued last spring that new and retrofitted tank cars be required to withstand being engulfed in a pool of burning liquid for 100 minutes without exploding.

Critics say slightly more than an hour and a half is too little time for police, firefighters and other first responders to react to the fiery derailment of a train hauling crude oil or ethanol.

Response time is of critical importance in the Chicago area, the nation's railroad hub. Scores of trains pass through each week hauling highly flammable crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale fields to refineries, generally on the East Coast.

When a BNSF train hauling 103 cars of crude oil derailed near Galena on March 5, witnesses said it took about only an hour for tank cars to explode, sending fire balls hundreds of feet into the sky. The explosions were so dangerous that firefighters couldn't get close enough to extinguish the flames, officials said.

The Association of American Railroads had urged the U.S. to reconsider its decision, issued in May. The association sought adoption of a tougher standard of thermal protection -— up to 800 minutes, more than 13 hours — to give responders adequate time to react to an incident.

But federal officials rejected the association's arguments, saying that 100 minutes was adequate time for first responders to assess an accident and take action, such as evacuating the area around a crude oil train derailment.

"There has not been any evidence presented that the current (100-minute) requirement is insufficient for achieving these goals," according to the decision by the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The decision was signed Nov. 5 by agency administrator Marie Therese Dominguez. The agency also rejected four other appeals of its May 8 rules regarding tank cars.

The decision "provides no comfort level," said Barrington Fire Chief James Arie. "It's confusing at best, disappointing to say the least."

In Barrington, at the intersection of two major rail lines, the Canadian National and the Union Pacific, officials would need to muster personnel and equipment and organize the proper response to a tank car derailment, including the possible evacuation of the heavily populated nearby area, Arie said.

"That's no small feat," Arie said. "It takes a long period of time to get those resources together. One hundred minutes goes by very quickly."

In west suburban Riverside, which straddles the BNSF Railway tracks and where crude oil trains also pass through daily, local police and firefighters would likely be the first to arrive at a derailment, but it could take 45 minutes for assistance to arrive from other departments via a mutual aid agreement, police Chief Tom Weitzel said.

A crude oil or ethanol derailment could necessitate the evacuation of an area within a half-mile of the scene and could take considerable time and personnel, Weitzel said.

"A hundred minutes makes no sense," Weitzel said.

The new regulations announced in May call for a three- to five-year phaseout of older-model tank cars, known as DOT-111s, that the National Transportation Safety Board and other experts have declared unsafe. The cars must be retrofitted or replaced with new ones that have stronger shells and valves, and protective shields to better withstand a collision or derailment

The latest federal data, first reported April 4 by the Tribune, shows about 437,000 barrels of Bakken crude oil being shipped daily from North Dakota to East Coast refineries. That is equivalent to as many as 42 mile-long tank car "unit trains" passing through Chicago and the suburbs each week.

The 100-minute requirement retained by the PHMSA decision is a 20-year-old standard that experts and the railroad industry say was written with liquefied petroleum gas in mind, not volatile crude oil or ethanol.

The PHMSA decision did not cite what happened in recent fiery derailments, including three that occurred in Illinois.

In the Galena incident, authorities said the tank cars survived the derailment intact, only to be engulfed in a flaming pool of oil that leaked from damaged cars and was ignited by a spark. The heat built up so much pressure within the cars that they blew up.

In Tiskilwa, 800 residents were evacuated after an ethanol train derailed and caused a massive explosion on Oct. 7, 2011.

A Canadian National Railway tank car train hauling 75 tank cars with ethanol derailed in Cherry Valley, near Rockford, on June 19, 2009. A massive fireball erupted and resulted in one death, nine injuries and the evacuation of 600 houses.

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