In­spec­tors find thou­sands of de­fects

Nearly 24,000 safety prob­lems found in trains that trans­port crude oil

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY MATTHEW BROWN

BILLINGS, MONT. | Gov­ern­ment in­spec­tions of rail­roads that haul volatile crude oil across the United States have un­cov­ered al­most 24,000 safety de­fects, in­clud­ing prob­lems sim­i­lar to those blamed in de­rail­ments that trig­gered mas­sive fires or oil spills in Ore­gon, Vir­ginia, Mon­tana and else­where, ac­cord­ing to data ob­tained by The Associated Press.

The safety de­fects were dis­cov­ered dur­ing tar­geted fed­eral in­spec­tions on al­most 58,000 miles of oil train routes in 44 states. The in­spec­tion pro­gram be­gan two years ago fol­low­ing a string of oil train ac­ci­dents across North Amer­ica, in­clud­ing a 2013 de­rail­ment in Lac-Me­gan­tic, Que­bec, that killed 47 peo­ple.

Fed­eral reg­u­la­tors said the in­spec­tions re­sulted in 1,118 vi­o­la­tion rec­om­men­da­tions, prompt­ing rail­roads to be­come more re­spon­sive to con­cerns raised by track in­spec­tors and to im­prove safety.

Prob­lems iden­ti­fied by fed­eral in­spec­tors in­cluded worn rails and other equip­ment; bolts meant to hold tracks in place that were bro­ken, loos­ened or miss­ing; and cracks in steel bars join­ing sec­tions of track. They also noted fail­ures by rail­roads to quickly fix prob­lems iden­ti­fied through in­spec­tions.

Such is­sues are not un­com­mon across the na­tion’s 140,000-mile freight rail net­work. But they have re­ceived height­ened at­ten­tion af­ter rail ship­ments of crude oil in­creased and the num­ber of ma­jor de­rail­ments spiked fol­low­ing a surge in do­mes­tic en­ergy pro­duc­tion.

A vi­o­la­tion rec­om­men­da­tion oc­curs when an in­spec­tor finds some­thing se­ri­ous enough to war­rant a po­ten­tial penalty, or a rail­road fails to ad­dress a de­fect that’s been found. Fed­eral of­fi­cials de­clined to say how many penal­ties had been is­sued un­der the crude-by-rail in­spec­tion pro­gram.

A former se­nior of­fi­cial at the Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion, Steven Dit­meyer, re­viewed the in­spec­tion data ob­tained by the AP. He said it re­in­forces the need for rail­roads to stay on top of reg­u­lar main­te­nance for their sprawl­ing net­works of track.

Many of the de­fects found by in­spec­tors posed se­ri­ous safety is­sues, Mr. Dit­meyer said, adding that it can be dif­fi­cult for rail­roads to know when a seem­ingly small prob­lem will re­sult in a de­rail­ment.

“All of this is a call for con­tin­ued vig­i­lance,” said Mr. Dit­meyer, who di­rected the rail­road ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Of­fice of Re­search and De­vel­op­ment for eight years. “One de­fect or one vi­o­la­tion of the right kind can cause a de­rail­ment. Th­ese sta­tis­tics give a good in­di­ca­tion of the track qual­ity, but most (de­fects) won’t cause a de­rail­ment.”

Some safety gaps found by in­spec­tors bear sim­i­lar­i­ties to the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing prior ac­ci­dents.

In Lynch­burg, Vir­ginia, cracks in the track that went un­re­paired led to a CSX Trans­porta­tion oil train com­ing off the rails and ex­plod­ing along the James River in 2014.

In Cul­bert­son, Mon­tana, a 2015 ac­ci­dent that spilled 27,000 gal­lons of oil from a BNSF Rail­way train was blamed on de­fec­tive or miss­ing fas­ten­ers used to hold the tracks in place.

ASSOCIATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Sur­vey crews in boats look over tanker cars as work­ers re­move dam­aged tanker cars along the tracks where sev­eral CSX tanker cars car­ry­ing crude oil de­railed and caught fire along the James River. Many of the de­fects were sim­i­lar to prob­lems blamed in past de­rail­ments that caused mas­sive fires or oil spills.

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