Public Citizen Applauds New Bill Addressing the Oil Trains Crisis

Statement of Tyson Slocum, Energy Program Director, Public Citizen

Note: Today, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is introducing legislation to protect communities from oil train disasters. The U.S. Department of Transportation proposed safety standards in July 2014, but those rules are being delayed by a U.S. Office of Management and Budget review and by continuing opposition from the oil and railroad industries.

A string of recent oil train disasters underscores the critical need for significant improvements in the way we ship oil on rails. For instance, we need sturdier rail cars, oil that is less combustible, more secure operations and more inspections. A bill introduced today by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell would help prevent future oil train disasters by requiring these and other safety measures.

The bill sets a federal safety standard for the more volatile tar sands and shale crude oil. It requires rail cars to be protected by steel shells that are more puncture-resistant as well as thermal jackets that increase fire resistance, and an immediate halt to the transport of oil in any rail car that hasn’t been reinforced.

The bill also mandates more safety inspections of rail carriers and oil producers, heftier penalties for noncompliance and improved spill response plans, and requires that state and local authorities be notified before oil trains move through their communities.

The past few weeks have seen a wave of oil train derailments and explosions in the United States and Canada, which threaten ecosystems, public health and human lives with fireballs that rage for days. Oil trains are bombs on wheels, and when they pass through big cities like Chicago, Houston or Minneapolis, they put hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives in danger.

But based on the behavior of the industry, it seems that executives are more focused on their company coffers. Earlier this month, at the very moment firefighters were risking their lives to hold back the flames from an exploded train in Illinois, oil and railroad companies were meeting with federal officials to lobby for lower safety standards. In public, industry groups were calling for stronger safeguards, but privately they were still trying to undermine critical safeguards.

We can’t let oil and railroad companies make their own rules. Sen. Cantwell’s bill wouldn’t let them, and instead would – rightly – put public safety ahead of corporate profits.