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Explosive train derailments prompt U.S. to advocate for safety improvements of oil transport

April 23, 2014 at 6:36 PM EDT
The amount of oil being moved around the United States by rail has quadrupled since 2005. A string of explosive train derailments in the U.S. and Canada have prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to work with other agencies on improving the safety of the rail shipments. Judy Woodruff talks to Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Most of the time, when we talk about the boom in oil production in the U.S., we focus on costs and the environment. But the boom has also led to a major rise in how much oil is being moved around the country by rail. In fact, that amount has quadrupled since 2005, and that is leading to growing worries over safety risks.

One of the biggest safety concerns: explosive train derailments in the U.S. and Canada. The most deadly came in July of last year, when an unmanned runaway train carrying crude oil barreled off the rails in a small town in Quebec; 47 people died in the explosion and fire.

The oil on that train was coming from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, a site for much of the oil boom since 2006, facilitated by a form of extraction known as hydraulic fracturing. Two-thirds of the oil produced in the Bakken formation today is shipped by rail, as is roughly 10 percent of all U.S. oil output.

Last December, a BNSF train in Casselton, North Dakota, struck another train, igniting 10 cars and spilling 400,000 gallons of crude oil. Ethanol, which is also increasingly carried by rail, was the cargo in a 2009 train derailment in Cherry Valley, Illinois. One person was killed in that accident.

Now the National Transportation Safety Board is working with other agencies on new steps to improve the safety of the rail shipments.

For the record, BNSF Railway is a NewsHour underwriter.

This afternoon, Canadian regulators announced that they will phase out older railcars like the ones involved in the Quebec accident by May 2017. Between 65,000 and 80,000 of them are carrying flammable liquids in North America. This week, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has been meeting on these very issues.

And I’m joined now by its chairman, Deborah Hersman.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

DEBORAH HERSMAN, Chairwoman, National Transportation Safety Board: Hello.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is there a consensus on why there have been as many accidents as there have been with explosions and the kind of mayhem we have seen?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: So I think the important thing to understand is we can prevent these accidents. So we have got to figure out how to prevent them.

And that means keeping the trains from derailing in the first place or keeping them from having collisions, and so we have got to work on that. Most of these events are caused by either human failure, human factors issues, or track defects. And so we have got to fix those two issues.

And then the second piece of it is the mitigation, the tank cars and making those tank cars more crash-worthy if you do have an accident. And then the final piece of it is the response, because no community is prepared for a worst-case scenario if you lose the entire contents of one of these unit trains.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So in terms of making the cars, making this transport safer, what needs to be done that isn’t being done right now?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: So, I think focusing on the prevention, keeping the trains from derailing in the first place or those collisions from happening.

And that means the industry has to do a number of things. Do better inspections of the track. Make sure that those trains don’t collide, that your workers aren’t fatigued, that they aren’t tired. We have got to make sure that we prevent the accidents in the first place. But when it comes to the tank cars…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me just stop you there. Is that happening now?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: Well, we do have some voluntary agreements from some of the railroads about reducing train speeds. That will reduce some of the risk if there is a collision or an accident. And doing more frequent inspections of the rail — these are good things that people agree to do voluntarily.

But more needs to be done, because we really need to get to zero accidents, not just fewer accidents, but zero accidents. When it comes to the tank cars, there’s a lot of conversation now about improving the crashworthiness and the integrity of these cars that are out there. And you talked about it, tens of thousands of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so should the U.S. do what the Canadian regulators have just today announced they’re going to do, and that is require that the older cars be phased out?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: That’s in fact what the NTSB recommended several years ago.

You showed earlier the Cherry Valley accident involving the ethanol train. We said they either need to retrofit or phase out these DOT-111 tank cars carrying crude or ethanol.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it has already been recommended. Has it happened?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: It has not happened. We certainly applaud the Canadians for taking swift action.

And today we really challenge the U.S. regulators to follow suit, to move forward with safety improvements.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So where is the holdup? The reporting I have been reading today is that the railroad industry is saying, these cars — among other things, they are saying these cars need to be upgraded. And they’re looking to the oil industry, the oil companies to do that upgrading.

The oil companies are pushing back, saying, wait a minute, where is the evidence.

How do you read all of this?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: Well, I think clearly there are a lot of different interests here.

We heard from the petroleum industry. We also heard from the rail industry, and we heard from the people who manufacture and own the tank cars. Everybody has got to work together to try to solve this problem. It’s not going to go away if we don’t invest in better tank cars and make sure we invest in preventing those accidents in the first place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does the NTSB, your agency, have the clout to make the things happen that need to happen?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: We investigate the accidents and we make recommendations. It’s up to other people to implement our recommendations.

These recommendations have been on the books for several years. I think we’re very disappointed that they haven’t moved faster. But I will tell you, this issue is getting a lot of attention now that we have had some accidents here on this side of the border. We have seen what happened in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. I think a lot of politicians and others are paying attention. And there’s pressure on the industry and the regulators to make a change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I assume that’s part of the reason you’re here tonight to talk about…

DEBORAH HERSMAN: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … to talk about this.

But I was also reading today, Deborah Hersman, that, among other things, the oil industry is being criticized for not being transparent enough about the cargo it carries, how it carries it, its own safety rules and regulations. Help us understand that a little better.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: You know, I think the important thing to understand here is, this boom is a really good thing when we talk about energy independence for the United States. It is a good thing for U.S. jobs.

And it is — there is a lot of good here, but you have to do the work that needs to be done to protect the safety of the people who are working along the lines, people who live along the lines, and the environment. And, unfortunately, they got way ahead with the business case, and the safety regulations were not there keeping track.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean the oil industry got way ahead?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: The oil industry, it found this oil and they were extracting it. And the rail industry, these unit trains, 100-car trains of crude oil or ethanol, they are really essentially moving pipelines.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you see productive conversations under way now? I mean, do you believe that this discussion is moving in a positive direction, or is it stuck at this point?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: Well, I think we heard today. We had those industries represented.

And I will tell you, they had very different perspective. But I think at some point, you’re going have to have some adult supervision, and that is going to need to come from the regulator to step in and say, we have had enough accidents, we have had enough work on trying to get to a consensus. This is what the standard needs to be.

And that is in fact what the Canadians are beginning to do right now. And I think we have got on this side of the border to step up to the plate, or we’re going have two levels of safety. You are going to have on one side of the border certain provisions, and then on the U.S. side, it won’t be the same.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Deborah Hersman is the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

We thank you.