House Transportation panel lambastes administration for safety delays

Members of a US House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee from both parties sternly criticized the Obama administration for delays in implementing pipeline and rail safety procedures as the systems carry more crude oil, ethanol, and other volatile materials.

“Notably, Congress has acted on multiple occasions to speed the process along and even imposed a statutory limit for releasing a finalized crude-by-rail rule,” Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) said as he opened the Apr. 14 proceedings. “That deadline was promptly missed by the administration, which has led us to have this hearing today.”

The White House also has dragged its feet in appointing new Federal Railroad Administration and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) administrators, Denham said. “Of the five [US Department of Transportation] positions that have acting administrators, these two are the most critical in safety terms,” he said.

“As I learn more about these issues, I’m amazed how many we have on the table—and they’re not new,” Ranking Minority Member Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) said as the hearing concluded. “That could be seen by the number of Democrats who stayed because they had serious questions…. We’ve had Congress put certain deadlines on implementing statutes, and they’ve blown right by. There’s something very wrong here.”

PHMSA Acting Administrator Timothy P. Butters and FRA Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg, who were there as witnesses, said they were equally frustrated by delays, but noted that the federal rulemaking process takes time because it tries to involve as many stakeholders as possible.

When Capuano asked about a shutoff valve mandate from the 2011 Pipeline Safety Act reauthorization, Butters said, “The gas safety rule is currently within DOT. We are working vigorously to get that wrapped up and over to [the White House Office of Management and Budget]. The liquid safety rule is at OMB. We have been working closely with them and believe we’re close to having that out, although I can’t say exactly when.”

Very high priority

Responding to committee member Connie Brown’s (D-Fla.) question about pipeline regulation delays, the PHMSA official said the agency has placed a very high priority on both the liquids and gas rulemakings. “We are very cognizant of both these rules’ urgency and are working as fast as we can. I can’t say what Congress can do to expedite that,” he said.

Feinberg said, “We have to function in the regulatory process that exists. It’s not built for speed. I wish that it was…but there are nine different steps in the US regulatory process and we have to move through every one of them.”

Butters noted that PHMSA received more than 30,000 comments on its proposed rail safety rule alone, “and we have to go through every one of them.” Feinberg said PHMSA and FRA have undertaken more than two dozen actions to enhance the safe transport of crude oil since December 2012, including issuing emergency orders, safety advisories, safety alerts, hosting public hearings, putting shippers and carriers on notice, and providing training for emergency first responders.

The agencies also want to increase their oversight workforces, both officials told the subcommittee. “FRA has requested 45 new staff positions dedicated to the safe transportation of energy products in its fiscal 2016 budget,” said Feinberg. “This includes creation of five new crude oil route manager positions to focus on the nation’s energy corridors. For the field, FRA requested 40 dedicated safety inspectors and rail safety specialists to oversee railroads’ crude oil safety performance and to ensure that next generation tank cars are built to applicable standards.”

FRA also has asked Congress for more money to expand coverage of its Automated Track Inspection Program on routes that heavily carry energy products, and to fully implement the Crude Oil Route Track Examination program with increased track inspections specifically on crude oil routes, Feinberg said.

Butters said PHMSA has about 500 employees at its headquarters and field offices. “We have been working pretty vigorously since December to fill new positions,” he said. The agency has completed 22 of the 42 PSA mandates, Butters said.

First responders

Committee member Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) said he would like to see accident response procedures improved so that local responders don’t have to board a locomotive to learn what the train was carrying by reading the manifest. Butters said that as a former fire chief, “the whole notion of electronic shipping papers is critical to me.” He said, “We believe it’s unacceptable to put first responders at risk retrieving documents from a locomotive when these documents can be transmitted electronically. Having a consistent, seamless system is what we’re working toward.”

A third witness, NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart, said it is essential for first responders to have information quickly. “Any improvement to railroad tank car safety must proceed hand-in-hand with an improved approach to ensuring first responders have adequate information to take appropriate life-saving actions,” he said.

PHMSA is working to implement NTSB’s August 2014 recommendation that railroads be required to notify state and local emergency planning committees about commodities traveling through their areas and to assist with development of emergency response plans as part of its rulemaking to improve DOT-111 tank cars, Hart told the subcommittee.

He said NTSB has classified the recommendation “Open—Unacceptable Response” because it believes emergency responders and state and local planning committees should have adequate information about shipments of all hazardous materials, not just flammable liquids.

Feinberg said that DOT is pursuing “a holistic, all-of-the-above approach to ensure the safe movement of energy products in America.” She said, “We believe this comprehensive approach must include enhancing the integrity of the tank car itself, strengthening the safety requirements of railroad operations, and taking whatever steps are possible to improve the safety of the product itself.”

In that last regard, Feinberg emphasized that “the product itself has not been found as a cause of an incident.” DOT’s comprehensive approach, added Butters, “looks at everything, including volatility, but more research is needed.”

Hart said, “Our accident investigations show the speed of the train and the pools that result play a bigger part than volatility.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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