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Originally published July 9, 2013 at 8:11 PM | Page modified July 10, 2013 at 9:46 AM

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Canadian blast revives complaints of rupture-prone rail cars

The derailment and explosion of tank cars filled with crude oil in Canada on Saturday has intensified the debate over the safety of transporting oil by train versus pipelines.

Bloomberg News

Tank cars in spotlight

Saturday’s oil-train explosion in Quebec involved DOT-111-type tanker cars, which have come under scrutiny.

Widely used: DOT-111 tank cars are the workhorse of the rail freight industry, hauling all sorts of chemicals and hazardous materials such as crude oil and ethanol, the highly flammable corn-based fuel.

Design flaws: The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has noted several worrisome problems with the type of car: Its steel shell is too thin to resist puncture in accidents. The ends are especially vulnerable to tears from couplers that can fly up after ripping off between cars. And unloading valves and other exposed fittings on the tops of tankers can break during rollovers.

Newer cars: The rail and chemical industries and tanker manufacturers have voluntarily committed to safety changes for cars built after October 2011 to transport ethanol and crude oil. The improvements include thicker tank shells and shields on the ends of tanks to prevent punctures. But the industry is appealing to regulators to reject NTSB recommendations that the 30,000 to 45,000 existing ethanol tankers built under the older specifications be modified or phased out.

Safety record: More than 99 percent of hazardous-materials rail shipments arrive safely at their destinations, according to the Association of American Railroads, which promotes rail as the safest way to move hazardous materials over the 140,000-mile network belonging to its North American members.

The Associated Press

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More North American communities are exposed to the risks of derailments and spills from trains carrying crude oil because more oil is being produced and transported by rail, and pipelines such as TransCanada’s Keystone XL are delayed.

The derailment and explosion of more than 70 runaway tank cars filled with thousands of barrels of crude oil in Canada on Saturday has intensified the debate over the safety of transporting oil by train versus pipelines, which have their own record of spills.

North American railroads pass through more populated areas than pipelines because many cities were built around the tracks, Brigham McCown, a transportation consultant, said.

The train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, was carrying crude oil to Irving Oil’s 298,800- barrel-a-day Saint John refinery in New Brunswick, according to a statement on Irving’s website. The refinery is receiving more than 90,000 barrels a day by rail, a person familiar with the plans said in December.

The Quebec disaster comes as construction of pipelines such as the $5.3 billion Keystone XL conduit to the Gulf Coast are delayed by environmental and regulatory concerns. TransCanada applied to build Keystone XL five years ago and is awaiting a U.S. decision on a revised route after the Obama administration initially rejected the project in January 2012.

Safety concerns about pipelines have grown after a series of spills in the past three years, such as the 5,000 barrels leaked in March by Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus line in Arkansas, and the 2010 rupture of an Enbridge line in Marshall, Mich. Enbridge spilled more than 20,000 barrels of heavy oil from Canada into a branch of the Kalamazoo River.

But U.S. and Canadian regulators have warned for years that the most widely used type of rail tanker is prone to rupturing during derailments.

The tank car, made by several manufacturers and known as DOT-111, ruptures more often in derailments than other models, investigators have said. The rail industry has opposed regulations proposed by agencies such as the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that would require retrofitting to make leaks and fires less likely.

“During a number of accident investigations over a period of years, the NTSB has noted that DOT-111 tank cars have a high incidence of tank failures during accidents,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a 2012 letter recommending tougher standards for the cars.

According to a NTSB report last year, about 69 percent of the U.S. rail-car fleet is composed of DOT-111s.

Canadian Transport Minister Denis Lebel said the cars involved in Saturday’s accident make up 70 percent of the Canadian fleet.

Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign coordinator for the environmental group Greenpeace Canada in Toronto, said the accident would probably show that government regulations haven’t kept pace with expanding oil and gas development in North America.

“Up until now, the Canadian government has treated spills from pipelines and rails as a public-relations problem, and they need to start treating it as a safety problem,” Stewart said.

An NTSB investigation into a June 2009 freight-train derailment in Cherry Valley, Ill., that killed one person concluded that flaws in the DOT-111 design probably worsened the spill. It noted that other models of tank cars designed to carry pressurized cargo have thicker shells and protected fittings and were less likely to leak in accidents.

The agency recommended thicker shells and other modifications to strengthen the rail cars.

If retrofits couldn’t be done, the NTSB suggested phasing out DOT-111 use for transporting hazardous materials. It has cited other accidents in which the performance of the tankers was called into question, including a 1992 derailment in Superior, Wis.; a 2003 one in Tamaroa, Ill.; and a 2006 incident in New Brighton, Pa.

In 2011, the Association of American Railroads told the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration that it supported updated rules for new tank cars, although it wanted existing ones exempt.

Patti Reilly, a spokeswoman for the association, said the group worked with tank-car manufacturers on safety improvements to models built after October 2011 that will cut in half the probability of a spill release during a derailment.

It could cost more than $1 billion to make some safety improvements to existing cars, according to the group.

The debate comes as U.S. oil companies are relying more on rail lines to ship crude from places including North Dakota where pipeline construction hasn’t kept pace with production. It wasn’t until 2008 that producers in North Dakota began shipping crude via railroads. Now as much as 675,000 barrels of oil a day leave the state by rail, according to Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, which oversees pipeline development in the state.

Rail lines carry about three-fourths of the oil from North Dakota, now the second-biggest producer in the U.S. behind Texas; pipelines account for the rest. The Keystone XL pipeline could carry as much as 100,000 barrels of oil a day from the state’s Bakken formation.

Communities new to oil development, including in North Dakota and Utah, are seeing more rail shipments of crude because there aren’t enough pipelines to carry the oil. As train shipments increase, so does the risk to communities, in part, because a higher proportion of railroads run through communities than pipelines, said the consultant McCown, who formerly led the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Capacity to offload oil from rail cars at refineries will expand by 840,000 barrels a day in 2014 compared with last year in U.S. communities, including Albany, N.Y.; Delaware City, Del.; Yorktown, Va.; and Philadelphia, according to the Atlantica Centre for Energy, an energy-industry association in Saint John.

Trains carrying crude must manage a potentially higher risk of accidents, particularly when they travel over hills, according to railroad operations consultancy Railex. Trains have historically moved mixed freight — a combination of car loads of liquid and nonliquid items such as coal, said Colon Fulk, a consultant with Railex in Sherrills Ford, N.C., who studies rail accidents.

Trains dedicated to hauling just one commodity such as oil must be handled differently from mixed cargoes, perhaps operating at lower speeds, Fulk said yesterday.

“The liquid will run to one end of the car, and it will slosh to the front end of the car and that can cause in-train forces to be very different than your normal freight train,” Fulk said.

Both trains and pipelines deliver more than 99 percent of products without incident, according to the American Association of Railroads and the Association of Oil Pipe Lines.

Crude also isn’t the most dangerous substance to transport. An explosion of rail cars carrying chlorine would have created more toxic vapors than the fumes from the Lac-Megantic incident, Fulk said. As well, communities that have expanded on top of existing pipeline routes face the risk of leaks or explosions along the conduits.

Railways suffer spills 2.7 times more often than pipelines, according to the Association of American Railroads, although historically pipelines spill greater volumes of oil.

In the U.S., the rail industry and transportation regulators use a computer model to develop routes for oil shipments, considering factors such as population density and the ability for communities to respond to accidents, said Patti Reilly, a spokeswoman for the railroad group. Hazardous materials make up less than 1 percent of all rail shipments, she said.

Communities left out of the oil-route planning may not know the size and scope of potential fires and explosions, said Fred Millar, an environmentalist who has done research on rail safety for Friends of the Earth and other organizations.

“You’re not supposed to find out what your blast zone is by enduring one,” he said.

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