Sacramento area Congress members call on feds to upgrade oil train safety now

A BNSF train carrying 98 tankers of crude oil passes through midtown Sacramento from the North Dakota Bakken oil fields to a refinery in the Bay Area city of Richmond.
A BNSF train carrying 98 tankers of crude oil passes through midtown Sacramento from the North Dakota Bakken oil fields to a refinery in the Bay Area city of Richmond.

Several Northern California representatives in Congress have sent a letter to the Obama Administration expressing displeasure that federal officials missed a self-imposed deadline to propose stronger safety regulations on trains shipping crude oil.

The Sacramento area is among many in the country that is seeing growing numbers of trains carrying volatile Bakken crude oil. Elsewhere in North America, several trains have crashed and exploded, including one carrying highly volatile Bakken crude in West Virginia several weeks ago that spilled oil into a river and set a forested area on fire.

Pressure is growing on federal officials to impose safety regulations. The federal government last year announced a series of potential rule changes, including requiring stronger tank cars, and set a January 2015 date for a likely ruling.

“Clearly action needs to be taken to increase the safety standards for rail cars transporting Bakken crude oil, and it must be taken now,” Rep. Dori Matsui, D-Sacramento, said in a press statement about the letter. “Our communities simply cannot afford any delay in implementation of stringent safety guidelines.”

The group, which includes Matsui, John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, sent its letter Friday to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and Federal Railroad Administration, asking them to take action to make rail shipments safer.

“We understand that more than 3,000 comments to the rule were analyzed and we commend the DOT for its work with industry thus far on information sharing, slower speeds, and reinforced railcars, but the multi-pronged solutions for this important safety issue must be implemented as quickly as possible,” the group wrote in the letter.

“We also believe that DOT should issue a rulemaking that requires stripping out the most volatile elements from Bakken crude before it is loaded onto rail cars. This operation may be able to lower the vapor pressure of crude oil, making it less volatile and therefore safer to transport by pipeline or rail tank car. Additionally, we believe that track maintenance and improvements must be a priority.

“We need safer rail lines that are built for the 21st century including more advanced technology in maintaining railroad tracks and trains, so that faulty axles and tracks do not lead to further derailments. If more dangerous and volatile crude is to be transported through cities and towns and along sensitive waterways and wildlife habitat, the rail and shipping industries must do more.”

The letter from local leaders came a day after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf sent a similar, high-profile plea to the president.

“The pace of federal rulemaking on rail safety is too slow,” Wolf wrote in a letter to Obama. “We urge that new federal safety rules be developed and implemented with a sense of urgency appropriate to the risk presented.”

Federal transportation officials said they are taking the final steps now in the process, but that the issue is complex.

“I’ve made the tank car rule a top priority for this department because the American people must have confidence that when hazardous materials are transported through their communities, we’ve done everything in our power to make that train as safe as possible, “ Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.

“This is a highly complex issue, consuming massive staff time, scientific study, dialogue with stakeholders and experts, and coordination across borders,” Foxx said. “The department has and will continue to put a premium on getting this critical rule done as quickly as possible, but we’ve always committed ourselves to getting it done right.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.