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Rail Companies Handle Oil Transport Like a 4-Year-Old

Growing up, my backyard was full of clover patches, a main source of food for bees. When I was four I deemed shoes useless, and decided to go out barefoot for an entire summer. My mom did everything she could think of to get me to wear shoes, but no matter how many promised ice cream cones, new shoe offers, or time-outs presented, I was not going to give in. Needless to say, I stepped on bees almost every day, forcing my mother to keep tweezers, cortisone cream, ice packs, and all sorts of bee sting remedies ready to go in our kitchen. Looking back, I think about how dumb I was for not preventing the stings in the first place, but realize if the bee stings were inevitable at least my mom had everything set up to quickly mend the situation. This is now the case for all rail companies transporting oil.

Forcing oil companies to have higher safety regulations to prevent oil spills is like getting a stubborn four-year-old to wear shoes. Therefore, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx ordered rail companies to disclose to state officials when they are transporting crude oil or hazardous materials through local communities. This way, clean-up crews and emergency responders can prepare for the inevitable spills, by knowing when such products are rolling through and what exactly the railcars contain.

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said of the order, “This federal requirement that information be shared directly with the state opens the door for this potentially life-saving info to be shared with local first responders, which should happen as soon as possible.” Basically, Schumer recognizes at this point in time officials should give up on prevention and work mostly on rectification.

The order was enacted immediately on Wednesday, April 7, and will require the rail companies to warn state officials when hazardous materials are being transported through towns. The states must then give that information to the local first responders. Foxx also issued a safety alert warning that rail companies should not use DOT-111 tank cars unless they are reinforced (a small measure companies can take to make them a bit safer). Such cars are not safe for carrying flammable liquids, but are used anyway without reinforcement measures.

Unfortunately the safety alert only asks railroads to reinforce or discard the DOT-111 tanks cars, but it does not put in place a federal rule banning them. The alert is essentially the same as my mom simply asking me to wear shoes, which means it’s very unlikely to be followed, leaving transportation methods as they are.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) agrees.

I strongly urge industry to follow this new safety alert and immediately being phasing out the use of DOT-111 rail cars for shipping crude oil. But we cannot rely on voluntary industry action alone to protect the safety of New Yorkers, and the administration must finish its work to implement a final rule to permanently ban the shipment of crude oil on DOT-111 cars.

Whether actual laws will be passed, and if those laws will be followed, remains unknown. It is clear oil companies will do what they want and the rest of us need to adjust to their prerogatives. Although DOT-111 tank cars remain a treacherous way to handle oil transportation, the disclosure order is one step closer to reducing a spill’s devastating impacts. For now, we can at least rest a little easier knowing we’re a bit more prepared for the next oil spill.

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  • Stacy

    They should just ban those rail cars and be done with it.

  • Emily Neimanis

    Stacy, I agree! Unfortunately, it looks like we’re a long way from serious regulations, or an actual rail car ban.