New federal regulations could remedy some oil transit hazards on Hudson rail lines

BY MICHAEL RICONDA

NEW CITY – As local and state activists continue to scrutinize plans to expand oil shipments over existing rail lines, a new federal proposal may relieve some concerns over the hazards of oil transportation through the Hudson Valley.

Now, with the deadline for public comment approaching fast, the pressure will be on to supplement suggested changes with more comprehensive reform. The U.S. Department of Transportation is currently seeking public comment on a proposed set of rules which will include required safety updates on rail cars, stricter brake controls, revised speed restrictions, and stronger fuel testing oversight.

The new rules, which would be phased in over a number of years, came partly in response to a Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) study which examined the volatility of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota, much of which is transported from terminals in Albany to refineries and ports in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and NYC.

According to the study, Bakken was found to be more volatile and flammable than other crude oils. Consequently, the DOT decided to review and update current regulations to address loopholes in rail safety regulations.

“The safety risk presented by transporting Bakken crude oil by rail is magnified both by an increasing volume of Bakken being shipped by throughout the U.S. and the large distances over which the product is shipped,” The DOT stated in a July press release on the proposals.

The regulations would apply to high-hazard flammable trains (HHFT), which are defined as trains which carry 20 or more tank carloads of flammable liquids, including both crude oil and ethanol. All HHFTs would be required to perform a route safety analysis and trains containing more than one million gallons of Bakken would also be required to notify State Emergency Response Commissions (SERC).

The trains themselves would also be subject to limited safety enhancements, with several options outlined in the policy proposal. New standards were proposed for tank cars constructed after October 1, 2015, while old tank cars would be retrofitted, re-purposed, retired or operated under speed restrictions. Options for new speed limits and braking systems were also outlined.

In addition, new liquid and gas testing program would be put into place which would address sampling and testing frequency and ensure such tests are documented and made available to the DOT upon request. Critics consider the proposal a positive-if not completely adequate-development. According to Riverkeeper Staff Attorney Sean Dixon, the proposal is fixed on “making disasters less disastrous” and does not do enough to address oversight, reporting and infrastructure.

Dixon criticized the proposed rules for ignoring other potentially hazardous fuels such as tar sands, which are also transported via rail. He argues that tar sands could have severe environmental impacts if released, but do not qualify as a highly-flammable liquid. Hence, they would not be subject to such regulations.

“Given that two of the three proposed terminal expansions on the Hudson Rive are designed specifically to allow tar sands crude to come down this virtual pipeline, it is highly concerning to us that the federal government is knowingly risking our entire river and all of our communities because it doesn’t want to take a wider lens picture of the inadequacy of the entire rail crude system.” Dixon said.

Instead, Dixon encouraged the federal government to make immediate, emergency changes. Such action would be put into place immediately rather than over a period of time, further reducing accident risk.

Meanwhile, some action has already been taken on rail transportation of Bakken crude. In July, the DOT issued an emergency order that rail carriers who ship more than one million gallons of Bakken oil must notify SERCs of their expected movements. The emergency requirement mirrors one of the proposals the DOT hopes to make permanent policy.

The topic of rail shipments of oil became a local controversy when it was revealed Bakken oil was already passing through the region on CSX rail lines. The DOT’s emergency order forced rail lines to disclose that about 15 to 30 trains carrying bakken oil pass through the Lower Hudson Valley each week.

Each train carries about one million gallons of the oil, with the number of trains likely to increase. Expansion of oil terminals in Albany, New Windsor could boost oil volume by 1.8 billion gallons if approved by the state.

Residents can submit written comments on the proposal within the next few days. The comment period ends on September 30, after which the DOT will review them and make recommendations. According to Dixon, implementation could occur as late as Spring or Summer of next year.

Comments can be submitted online by visiting www.regulations.gov.