WASHINGTON - New regulations to upgrade or replace thousands of tank cars prone to punctures and explosions similar to what happened in the fiery Casselton, N.D., train crash won't be coming as soon as lawmakers and industry groups hoped.
North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven said last week it would be weeks - not months - before federal regulators would issue guidance on how to improve DOT-111 tank cars, an industry workhorse commonly used to transport crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials.
But the changes won't come until at least early 2015, according to the Department of Transportation's recently released schedule for rulemaking.
Hoeven and other federal lawmakers turned up the pressure in the wake of the Dec. 30 crash in Casselton, where 18 DOT-111 cars hauling crude oil ruptured after the train collided with a derailed soybean train, sparking explosions and sending thick plumes of black smoke over the small town.
"It's disappointing," Hoeven said Wednesday after the DOT released its schedule. "They need to get going on this."
The possible rule change is being led by the DOT's Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Its timeline calls for the proposed changes for DOT-111 cars to be published in November, with a 60-day comment period stretching into mid-January 2015.
Hoeven said a quicker rollout of regulations is necessary to put the public at ease and let shipping companies know what rules they'll be working under.
The National Transportation Safety Board and railroad industry groups called on PHMSA to issue updated standards for new and existing tank cars, like thicker shells and metal shields on each end to protect against puncture. Those groups say those upgrades would significantly decrease the chances of a hazardous material spill in the event of a crash.
There are more than 300,000 DOT-111s on the rails - 94,000 of which haul hazardous fluids such as crude oil and ethanol, according to the Railway Supply Institute.
Shippers voluntarily started building stronger cars in 2011, but only about 14,000 are currently in service. Oil and ethanol companies have pushed back against calls to retrofit the entire DOT-111 fleet, which they say would cost more than $1 billion.
The NTSB, which investigates major train accidents, didn't blame the DOT-111 for an ethanol train derailment in 2009 near Rockford, Ill., killing one person and injuring nine others. But in its report, the NTSB concluded the inadequate tank cars "can almost always be expected to breach in derailments that involve pileups or multiple car-to-car impacts."
The same cars were involved in a crash last summer in Quebec, where 47 people died and much of the town of Lac Mégantic was leveled by exploding crude oil tankers.
The NTSB is still investigating what caused the crash in Casselton. A preliminary report released Monday revealed the oil tankers spilled up to 450,000 gallons of oil, making it the largest crude-by-rail spill since at least 1971.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502