Told to Fix Leaky Oil Train Cars in Two Months, Owners Sought Three Years

Railroad tank cars equipped with defective valves still will be allowed to transport crude oil and other hazardous materials through the end of the year, despite a March directive from federal regulators requiring their replacement within 60 days.

The Federal Railroad Administration order followed a Bellingham (Wash.) Herald story about a leaking oil train reported in Washington state in January. The Railway Supply Institute, trade group representing tank-car owners, wrote the agency in April asking for a three-year extension to replace the faulty valves on tank cars that carry hazardous materials.

About 6,000 tank cars were affected by the recall, issued on March 13. On May 12, the day of the original deadline, regulators wrote back to the trade group that the agency found no basis to give tank car owners until 2018 to comply, but nonetheless gave them until Dec. 31, an extension of more than six months.

Officials from the Railway Supply Institute couldn’t be reached to comment.

The federal order came about a month after crews discovered tank cars leaking from their top fittings while hauling crude oil through Washington state.

In mid-January, a 100-car train loaded with Bakken crude had 16 leaking cars removed at four different stops between northern Idaho and the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash.

As the train traveled west along the Columbia River, leaking cars were pulled as they were discovered; at each stop, the entire train was inspected before continuing on to the next location.

BNSF Railway, the train’s operator, said a total of 26 gallons of oil from 14 of the leaking cars was found only on the tops and sides of the cars, and no oil was found on the ground, in a report to the US Department of Transportation.

Separately, the Federal Railroad Administration fined the owner of a North Dakota oil loading terminal $10,000 for a spill from a tank car that was discovered in November in Washington state. When the car arrived at a refinery for unloading, inspectors found it coated in oil and measured about 1,600 gallons missing.

State officials first learned of the spill a month after it happened, and no local officials were notified. In March, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission recommended $700,000 in fines against BNSF for failure to report 14 hazardous materials spills within the 30 minutes required by state law.

BNSF has disputed the state regulator’s findings. A hearing is scheduled for January.

Six major oil train derailments this year across North America have demonstrated the continued risks of large volumes of crude oil moving by rail.

Four of those derailments occurred in just four weeks in February and March: two in Ontario, one in West Virginia and another in Illinois. All involved large spills, fires and explosions, but no serious injuries.

Two less serious oil train derailments have occurred since, in North Dakota in May and Montana in July.

The rail industry and its regulators have been under pressure from lawmakers and the public to fix tank car vulnerabilities and take more steps to prevent derailments from happening.

The US Department of Transportation issued its final rule on tank car standards for trains carrying oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids on May 1.

The new rule requires a tougher design for the tank cars, including thicker shells, more puncture resistance and thermal insulation to protect against prolonged exposure to fire.

It also requires existing tank cars be retrofitted to meet the new standards, depending on the level of hazard, within two to 10 years. Industry groups have challenged the new rule in court, saying it doesn’t give them enough time to complete the retrofit. Environmental groups have sued as well, saying it gives the industry too much time.

This year is already the second worst for oil spilled from trains since the federal government began collecting data 40 years ago. A McClatchy analysis of the data last year found that trains spilled about 1 million gallons in 2013 alone, vs. 800,000 in all the prior years combined.

More than 600,000 gallons of oil has spilled from trains so far this year, according to a new analysis of data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.