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New Safety Rules Proposed For Oil Rail Tanker Cars That Carry Explosive, Fracked Crude

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A KPIX 5 crew captured this video of Bakken crude oil getting unloaded from a train at a rail yard in Richmond. (CBS)

A KPIX 5 crew captured this video of Bakken crude oil getting unloaded from a train at a rail yard in Richmond. (CBS)

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WASHINGTON (CBS/AP) — Thousands of older rail tank cars that carry crude oil would be phased out within two years under regulations proposed Wednesday in response to a series of fiery train crashes over the past year, including a runaway oil train that exploded in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people.

Accident investigators have complained for decades that the cars are too easily punctured or ruptured, spilling their contents, when derailed.

Bay Area residents have voiced their concerns about plans to ship by rail highly-volatile crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale fields extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Earlier this year, KPIX 5 discovered fracked oil being moved through the Bay Area in an operation so hush hush that even the state’s energy commission didn’t know about it.

The phase-in period for replacing or retrofitting the DOT-111 tank cars is shorter than the Canadian government’s three-year phased plan. However, regulators left open the question of what kind of tank car will replace the old ones, saying they will choose later from among several proposals.

Besides oil, the proposed regulations would also apply to the transport of ethanol and other hazardous liquids. The regulations also apply only to trains of 20 or more cars, which would include most oil shipments.

The proposal also makes mandatory a 40-mph speed limit through urban areas that freight railroads had voluntarily agreed to earlier this year. Tank cars have ruptured in several accidents at speeds as low as 24 mph. Regulators said they’re considering lowering the speed limit to 30 mph for trains that aren’t equipped with more advanced braking systems.

The freight railroad industry had met privately with department and the White House officials to lobby for keeping the speed limit at 40 mph rather than lowering it. Railroad officials said a 30 mph speed limit would tie up traffic across the country because other freight wouldn’t be able to get past slower oil trains, which are often 100 cars or longer.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx also said the government’s testing of crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana shows the oil is on the high end of a range of volatility compared with other crude oils, meaning it’s more likely to ignite if spilled.

Concern about the safe transport of crude oil was heightened after a runaway oil train derailed and then exploded last July in the small town of Lac-Megantic in Canada, just across the border from Maine. More than 60 tank cars spilled more than 1.3 million gallons of oil. Forty-seven people were killed and 30 buildings destroyed in resulting inferno.

In May, the Transportation Department issued an emergency order Wednesday requiring that railroads inform state emergency management officials about the movement of large shipments of crude oil through their states and urged shippers not to use the older model tanks cars that are easily ruptured in accidents, even at slow speeds.

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