On February 14, 2019 the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a final rule dictating safety planning for the operation of high-hazard flammable unit trains (HHFUT), which transport crude oil. The rule, first proposed in July 2016, is intended to “improve oil spill response readiness and mitigate effects of rail accidents and incidents involving petroleum oil and high-hazard flammable trains”.
North America is currently experiencing an oil production boom, but lacks the pipeline infrastructure to transport that oil to refineries, leading to an increasing reliance on rail transport of crude oil. As the PHMSA explained when it first proposed this rule in 2016:
“Because rail transportation commonly includes petroleum oil shipped in high volumes and large quantities … there is a significant risk of train accidents that could reasonably be expected to cause substantial harm to the environment by discharging product into or on the navigable waters, adjoining shorelines, or the exclusive economic zone.”
Indeed, a number of high-profile accidents involving HHFUTs put pressure on authorities to strengthen regulations of this practice. In 2013, for example, an 74-car train carrying Bakken crude derailed in the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec, leading to a massive 1.6 million gallon spill, multiple explosions, 47 deaths, and the destruction of nearly the entire downtown. This particular accident prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to propose suggested safety recommendations, some of which are addressed in this rule.
The final rule, promulgated under the authority of both the Clean Water Act as amended by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, and the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015, requires railroads to divide routes into response zones, develop comprehensive oil spill response plans (COSRPs), and share the response plans with State and tribal emergency response commissions. This is required for trains with “at least 20 cars of liquid petroleum oil in a continuous block or 35 cars of liquid petroleum oil in a train.”
The rule as proposed was intended to operate in conjunction with a 2015 Obama-era regulation requiring HHFUTs to have electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes, which decrease the risk of a fiery derailment. However, that rule was repealed in September 2018 after a revised cost-benefit analysis required by the FAST Act concluded that ECP installation was not economically justified.