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Hoeven: New rail tank safety standards due in weeks

By: Patrick Rucker, Reuters, INFORUM

WASHINGTON – Federal officials have promised to issue within weeks new safety standards for the kind of tank cars involved in a spate of fiery derailments in recent months, North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven said on Thursday.

Rail cars carrying crude oil out of the Bakken region of North Dakota have been involved in several mishaps that have surprised officials with the force of the explosion. The most recent was the derailments Dec. 30 near Casselton, N.D.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Thursday told lawmakers he planned to meet with rail and oil executives next week as officials try to understand what caused these mishaps, said Hoeven, a Republican.

Foxx also promised to visit the North Dakota Oil Patch in coming weeks to see the situation on the ground, said Hoeven after a meeting with the transportation chief and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

“They want to make sure the right product is going into the correct rail car,” Hoeven said about concerns that volatile fuel might be wrongly labeled and packaged.

Foxx also said federal specifications on tank cars would come “in weeks, not months,” Hoeven said.

A string of explosive train accidents involving Bakken crude, including a derailment in Quebec in July that killed dozens of people, have intensified pressure on regulators to ensure crude-by-rail shipments are safe.

The latest incident came on Tuesday evening, when a train hauling crude oil and fuel gas derailed and caught fire in New Brunswick, Canada.

As new drilling techniques have increased oil production in much of the country, train shipments are often the preferred way to reach distant refiners.

Depending on the new toughness standards set by officials, old railcars could be retired or brought into workshops for retrofits.

Regulators are particularly concerned about the safety of DOT-111 tank cars which have been a workhorse of the national rail fleet but have also been involved in a number of recent derailments – including the wreck near Casselton last month.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has said older models of DOT-111 are vulnerable to leaks and explosions.

Such cars were also involved in the deadly Canadian explosion and Tuesday’s incident.

Also attending Thursday’s hour-long meeting was North Dakota’s other senator, Heidi Heitkamp, a representative of Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Cynthia Quarterman, who oversees dangerous train shipments as administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

“We are continuing to reach out to all entities that play a role in rail safety to get to the bottom of what happened in Casselton, and what we can do to make improvements,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “It is incredibly important for North Dakota that we have smart rail regulations in place. They will give certainty to our shippers, and, most importantly, respond to the very legitimate safety concerns of North Dakotans.”

A trade group representing the state’s oil industry praised the announcement, saying uncertainty about the coming regulations has kept manufacturers from making new railcars.

“The PHMSA has sat on the enhanced safety standards for more than two years,” Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said in a statement. “We are pleased to find out these standards may finally be closer to being released so manufacturers can begin production of better, more secure rail cars.”

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