The Urgent Need to Bolster Tank Car Safety Standards | Commentary

Posted April 27, 2015 at 4:00am

In 2013, 47 people were killed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when a runaway oil train derailed and exploded.

In 2014, a train carrying crude oil derailed in Lynchburg, Va., sending three flaming tank cars into the James River and forcing evacuations of downtown homes and businesses.

And just two months ago, a train hauling crude oil derailed in West Virginia, resulting in numerous explosions that sent tank cars into the nearby Kanawha River and the temporary closures of nearby water treatment plants. Scattered fires caused by the derailment continued to burn at the site almost a week later. At least one home was destroyed.

These accidents serve as a warning about the very real risks of transporting hazardous materials by rail — something that happens all the time throughout our nation and our state.

New data by the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that more than 1 million barrels of crude oil are transported by train across the United States every day.

And every day, tank cars carrying highly flammable crude oil make their way through New Jersey, weaving through residential areas and passing by schools, homes and businesses.

Think about the devastating impact that would result if one of these cars derailed. As the practice of shipping crude oil by rail increases, it’s time that we take action to increase the safety of our nation’s tank cars and mitigate the risks associated with the transport of hazardous materials.

This month, I introduced the Tank Car Safety and Security Act of 2015, legislation to strengthen the safety standards for DOT-111 tank cars that transport flammable liquids. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, these tank cars have a high incidence of tank failures during accidents.

My legislation requires the secretary of Transportation to revise federal standards for DOT-111 tank cars used to move flammable liquids.

The legislation requires all cars to include an outer steel jacket as well as thermal protection, full-height head shields and high-flow capacity pressure relief valves.

Tank cars built after October 2011 must be updated to include high-flow capacity pressure relief valves and design modifications to prevent bottom outlets from opening in the event of an accident.

In addition, the secretary of Transportation would be required to submit to Congress a plan to phase out older-model DOT-111 tank cars that are not retrofitted to meet the new safety standards.

Finally, the act directs the Transportation Security Administration administrator to issue a set of procedures to ensure that every rail car containing crude oil will not be left unattended when transferred from one carrier to the next.

Transporting flammable liquids and other hazardous materials always carries risks, but it’s critical that shipments of these materials are as safe as possible in order to mitigate these risks and safeguard our communities.

As we saw from the recent tank car incidents, the consequences of a derailed tank car carrying hazardous materials can be devastating, threatening water supplies and endangering the lives of many.

There is a clear need to ensure the safe transport of flammable liquids, and the Tank Car Safety and Security Act of 2015 aims to do just that by requiring safer tank cars and better inspections of cars and tracks.

Rail safety is one of New Jersey’s most pressing challenges. But it is also one of our greatest opportunities to protect our families and our communities. Congress should seize this opportunity and join in the effort to improve tank care safety standards.

Rep. Donald M. Payne, Jr. is a Democrat from New Jersey.