Feds propose overhauling tank car safety standards

The BLET is supporting portions of a proposed new rule that would increase the strength of tank cars and significantly improve rail safety, announced BLET National President Ed Rodzwicz.

On April 1, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) published the proposed new rule in the Federal Register. PHMSA is the federal agency responsible for regulation of pipeline and hazmat transportation, and FRA oversees safety in the railroad industry.

President Rodzwicz said the Brotherhood supports aspects of the rule regarding the increased strength of tank cars. He said the BLET also supports proposed operational restrictions on older tank cars that do not meet the new standards.

The BLET has a vested interest in improving tank car safety as a means of protecting the health and safety of its membership. Two BLET members were killed in the line of duty in accidents in 2004 and 2005. In both cases, the deaths were not caused by injuries sustained in derailments - rather, the fatalities were caused by the inhalation of toxic fumes.

In 2004 - the most recent year for which data is available - out of approximately 1.7 million hazmat shipments by rail, there were 29 accidents in which a hazmat was released. In these accidents, a total of 47 hazmat cars released some amount of product, meaning that the risk of a release was less than 0.003 percent. However, releases involving certain types of hazmat, particularly those that are poisonous- or toxic-by-inhalation (PIH or TIH) have had disastrous consequences.

Several recent accidents led Congress to direct the FRA to study the dynamic forces on tank cars under accident conditions and initiate a rulemaking to develop and implement appropriate design standards for pressurized tank cars. In addition to completing the study, FRA held several public meetings in 2006 and 2007, at which the BLET and other stakeholders proposed ways to reduce the risks posed by PIH/TIH shipments.

The Proposed Rule would:

A 2002 derailment in Minot, N.D., led to an anhydrous ammonia release that killed one and injured 333 others, 11 seriously. Damages and environmental clean-up and other costs have exceeded $11 million to date.

A 2004 collision in Macdona, Texas, that led to a chlorine leak claimed the lives of three - including BLET member Heath Pape, whose death was caused by inhaling toxic fumes - and seriously injured 30 others. The price tag for this accident topped $6.5 million.

The most tragic of these accidents is the 2005 collision and chlorine leak in Graniteville, S.C., which killed BLET member Chris Seeling and eight others. Another 554 people were injured, 75 of whom were hospitalized. Brother Seeling was relatively uninjured in the crash, but was overcome by toxic fumes, which caused his death. If this accident had occurred in the middle of the day, instead of the middle of the night, the number of casualties most likely would have been significantly higher. Monetary damages and costs are well over $300 million, and vital public services were interrupted for days in the aftermath of the accident.

President Rodzwicz applauded FRA's efforts in improving tank car safety, and said the BLET will continue to work with the FRA to do more to protect rail workers.

"This Proposed Rule represents a significant step in preventing accidents such as those in Minot, Macdona, and Graniteville," Rodzwicz said. "We also congratulate FRA for recognizing that a stronger tank car is only one piece of the puzzle, and we will continue to work with FRA to improve safety in other areas, such as the implementation of switch point detection technology in dark territory."

The comment period for the Proposed Rule runs until June 2, and the BLET will file a formal response, President Rodzwicz said.


© 2008 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen