Federal regulators issued an emergency order Tuesday requiring more stringent testing of crude oil before shipment by rail to determine how susceptible the cargo is to explosion or fire.
The order, a response to a string of train accidents since last summer involving oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana, came on the eve of a House hearing on rail safety. The Transportation Department’s pipeline safety agency is writing a set of new rules on tank cars, and lawmakers are expected to ask why those wider regulations are taking so long.
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The order Tuesday also would place crude oil under more protective sets of hazardous-material shipping requirements, rather than allowing some shipments to be treated as less dangerous, the Transportation Department said.
That means the fuel may no longer be carried by tank cars that lack certain safety features, according to government officials. That includes 1,100 cars that account for about 3 percent of the total crude fleet, according to the Association of American Railroads.
However, the order did not restrict oil companies from continuing to ship crude using tens of thousands of tank cars known as DOT-111s, which the National Transportation Safety Board says are at risk of rupture in an accident.
Shippers already had to classify oil shipments based on the risk for explosion or fire, but federal investigators found that many shipments were being misclassified as less dangerous. The order said testing for classification before shipment must be done “with sufficient frequency and quality” to make sure the oil’s volatility is properly gauged.
Government investigators found crude oil being transported from the Bakken region was misclassified in samples taken from 11 out of 18 truck shipments on their way to rail loading stations, federal officials said earlier this month.
“Today we are raising the bar for shipping crude oil on behalf of the families and communities along rail lines nationwide. If you intend to move crude oil by rail, then you must test and classify the material appropriately,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.
Despite the order, Cynthia Quarterman, the head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, probably will face tough questions Wednesday on why it has taken her agency so long to act.
The rail industry asked Transportation three years ago to write new regulations for railroad tank cars that were carrying the country’s nascent oil boom. And in the two years that followed, state and local officials and the National Transportation Safety Board also urged the department to act.
Jeannie Shiffer, a spokeswoman for the pipeline safety administration, said the prospective regulations and the issues involved were technical and complicated and Transportation was “working aggressively across multiple fronts” on the safety issues.