WASHINGTON — The Transportation Department issued an emergency order Wednesday requiring that railroads inform state emergency management officials about the movement of large shipments of crude oil through their states and urged shippers not to use older-model tanks cars that are easily ruptured in accidents, even at slow speeds.
The emergency order requires that each railroad operating trains containing more than 1 million gallons of crude oil — the equivalent of about 35 tank cars — from the booming Bakken region of North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada provide information on the trains' expected movement, including frequency and county-by-county routes, to the states they traverse. The order also requires that railroads disclose the volume of oil being transported and how emergency responders can contact "at least one responsible party" at the railroad.
Much of the oil from the region is being shipped across the United States and Canada in trains of 100 cars or more that accident investigators have described as "moving pipelines." Local and state officials, fire chiefs and other emergency responders have complained that they often have no information on the contents of the freight trains moving through communities and their schedules. Nor are they able to force railroads to provide the information, they say.
The department also issued a safety advisory urging shippers to use the most protective type of tank car in their fleets when shipping oil from the Bakken region. Accident investigators report older-model tank cars known as DOT-111s have ruptured or punctured, spilling their contents, even in accidents that occurred at speeds under 30 mph.
The emergency order follows a warning two weeks ago from outgoing National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman that the department risks a "higher body count" as the result of fiery oil train accidents if it waits for new safety regulations to become final.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the moves at a Senate committee hearing Wednesday, saying the department was moving as fast as possible on new safety regulations. He said he anticipated final regulations before year-end.
There have been nine oil train derailments in the United States and Canada since March 2013, many of them resulting in intense fires and sometimes the evacuation of nearby residents, according to the NTSB. The latest was last week, when a CSX train carrying Bakken crude derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va., sending three tank cars into the James River and shooting flames and black smoke into the air.