Commonly used rail car has dangerous design flaw
For two decades a type of rail tanker that could tear open in the event of an accident has been used to haul hazardous liquids across the country.
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"Rail continues to be the safest way to transport chemicals," Reilly added.Skip to next paragraph
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But the accident reports show that since 1996 at least two people have been killed by balls of flame, with dozens more hurt. And the risk of greater losses looms large.
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.
Under the industry proposal to regulators, the 30,000 to 45,000 existing ethanol tankers would remain unchanged, including many cars that have only recently begun their decades-long service lives.
In March, the NTSB asked for the higher standards to be applied to all tankers, meaning existing cars would have to be retrofitted or phased out.
The industry's proposal "ignores the safety risks posed by the current fleet," the NTSB said in a report on safety recommendations, adding that those cars "can almost always be expected to breach in derailments that involve pileups or multiple car-to-car impacts."
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is considering both arguments, but the regulatory process is slow and could take several years, experts said.
Industry representatives say a retrofit isn't feasible because of engineering challenges and costs. They insist the threat of serious accidents is overstated.
"How many millions of miles have the 111 cars run without problems?" said Lawrence Bierlein, an attorney for the Association of Hazmat Shippers Inc. "It's more likely you're going to be hit by lightning."
But worries about the tankers' weaknesses persist, especially since the volume of dangerous cargo on American rails is only expected to grow.
Ethanol production has soared from 900 million gallons in 1990 to nearly 14 billion gallons last year. Seeking to lessen America's dependence on foreign oil, federal mandates will quadruple the amount of ethanol and other renewable fuel that's blended into the nation's gasoline and diesel by 2022.
Nearly all of it moves by rail. In 2010, that meant 325,000 carloads of ethanol, according to the Association of American Railroads. Ethanol is now the highest-volume hazardous material shipped by rail. In 2000, it wasn't even in the top 10.
"That may account for the increasing frequency of accidents involving the DOT-111s and the current attention that's being drawn to them," said Paul Stancil, a senior hazmat accident investigator with the NTSB.
Since 2005, ethanol has increasingly been shipped in higher densities using "virtual pipelines" — trains in which every car carries the same product. The NTSB says that practice increases the potential severity of accidents like one in 2009 in the northern Illinois city of Rockford.