Lac-Megantic one year later

10 years ago

Improving oil-train safety
By U.S. Sen. Susan Collins

    A year after a freight train carrying more than a million gallons of crude oil derailed killing 47 people, the small, picturesque town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, is beginning to heal. The devastation was unimaginable, the loss was unthinkable, and the wounds are still very raw for the residents of this town, just 30 miles from the western Maine border, and for people in our state and around the world.
This horrific derailment brought to light the importance of ensuring the safe transportation of energy products. As Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and I held the first hearing last April specifically focused on safety issues related to rail shipment of crude oil. Our goal is to strengthen rail safety and improve rules for trains that carry hazardous material. We called the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), Anthony Foxx, to testify and we pressed him to propose policies to prevent and better respond to disasters such as that in Lac-Megantic.
Also testifying at that hearing at my request was the Chief of the Rangeley Fire Department, Tim Pellerin. Chief Pellerin was among more than 30 other Maine firefighters from Rangeley, Chesterville, Eustis, Farmington, New Vineyard, Phillips and Strong who were called upon to help Lac-Megantic firefighters within hours of the derailment and explosion.
At our hearing, Chief Pellerin discussed the challenges they faced, including the fact that much of the rail network in our country exists in rural areas and small towns often lack resources to effectively respond to large-scale hazardous material emergencies. He recommended integrated disaster training for first responders so that response can be swift and appropriate. Following our hearing, I worked with Sen. Murray to include additional funding in next year’s federal transportation funding bill to address improved coordination and training.
Since our hearing, I have continued to press the Obama Administration to ensure that we are taking the necessary actions to prevent another Lac-Megantic, while not overburdening an industry that has a proven track record of safety. According to the Association of American Railroads, more than 99 percent of rail hazmat shipments reach their destination without a release of product. There is, however, more work to be done.
Recently, Secretary Foxx called to inform me that DOT will strengthen federal oversight to improve the safety of shipping crude oil by rail. The Department has announced a rulemaking to address the safety ramifications of the exponential growth of the transportation of crude oil by rail in our country. Among other things, this rulemaking will propose enhanced tank car standards; a classification and testing program for mined gases and liquids; and new operational requirements for high-hazard flammable trains, such as speed limits and better braking. In addition, DOT is soliciting input for improving oil spill response plans for trains carrying crude oil.
Sen. Murray and I have also introduced legislation to authorize the creation of a Short Line Railroad Safety Institute designed to enhance safety in the short line freight railroad industry, including the transportation of crude oil and ethanol. Short line railroads operate more than 50,000 miles of track, which is approximately one-third of the national railroad network. These short lines play an important role as a feeder system for the larger Class I railroads, helping connect local communities to the national railroad system. Unfortunately, many of these short line railroads lack the resources that larger railroads are able to dedicate to safety training.
There certainly is no silver bullet to improving rail safety. The tougher rules being proposed by DOT, however, are significant actions toward improving oil-train safety. I will continue to monitor this situation closely and work with the Administration and all stakeholders to move forward with common sense measures to try to prevent future disasters.