January 21, 2015

Ranking Member Peter DeFazio Letter to Secretary FOxx urging DOT to address rail tank car safety & other pipeline hazards

January 22, 2015

The Honorable Anthony Foxx
Secretary of Transportation
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Avenue, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20590

Dear Secretary Foxx:

I write to express my serious concerns with the repeated failure of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to address longstanding and undisputed pipeline and hazardous materials safety issues.

The rule regarding Enhanced Tank Car Standards and Operational Controls for High-Hazard Flammable Trains is a prime example. The DOT maintains finalizing this rule remains one of its highest priorities, yet the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) now reports that publication of a final rule is not anticipated until May 12, 2015. In fact, the DOT has not even transmitted a draft final rule to the Office of Management and Budget for review.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has raised concerns about the “high incidence of failure” of DOT-111 tank cars since 1991. In fact, over the last 10 years, the NTSB has investigated or is currently investigating seven accidents involving the transportation of crude oil and other flammable materials in DOT-111 tank cars, including an October 2006 train derailment in New Brighton, Pennsylvania, which caused the release of 485,278 gallons of ethanol that ignited and burned for almost 48 hours; an October 2007 ethanol train derailment in Painesville, Ohio; a June 2009 ethanol train derailment and fire in Cherry Valley, Illinois, which killed one person, injured nine others, and resulted in a mandatory evacuation of about 600 residences within a half-mile radius of the accident site; an October 2011 ethanol train derailment in Tiskilwa, Illinois; a July 2012 mixed freight train derailment in Columbus, Ohio, which released 53,000 gallons of ethanol; a December 2013 train derailment and fire in Casselton, North Dakota, which resulted in the release of 476,000 gallons of crude oil and the evacuation of 1,400 residents; and, an April 2014 train derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia, which spilled 30,000 gallons of crude oil in and around the James River.

The NTSB has been made aware of (but is not investigating) five additional train accidents that occurred between August 2008 and February 2014 in the U.S., which involved the release of crude oil, causing significant environmental damage and fires.

In March 2011, the Association of American Railroads petitioned PHMSA to conduct a rulemaking on new tank car design standards, which seemingly languished in the bowels of the agency until 2013, when a train transporting crude oil in DOT-111 tank cars in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people and completely destroyed the town center. Coincidentally, two months later, PHMSA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on new tank car design standards.

Here we are almost 15 months later, and we still do not have a final rule. Frankly, I am concerned that opposition to the more contentious portions of the rule will only lead to further delays, possibly even litigation. That will end up postponing implementation of a final rule while the concerns of States and local communities are growing.

Moreover, these delays have significant implications for rail car manufacturers. It will take time for them to adjust to the standards proposed in the rule, which in turn will have a rippling effect on shippers who are putting off purchases of new tank cars until the new design standards are finalized. As I have said before, I believe that you should seriously consider severing this rule and propose one rule on stronger tank car design standards and another rule to address the operational changes proposed in the NPRM. That is sure to move this issue forward and address the more immediate dangers posed by the current DOT-111 tank cars.

Additionally, my concerns regarding PHMSA’s failure to address longstanding, significant safety issues extend to pipelines, as well. In multiple pipeline accident investigations over the last 15 years, the NTSB has identified the same persistent issues, most of which DOT has failed to address on its own accord. Each and every time, Congress has been forced to require PHMSA to take action, most recently in the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-90). Yet, three years later, almost none of the important safety measures in the Act have been finalized, including requirements for pipeline operators to install automatic shutoff valves and to inspect pipelines beyond high-consequence areas.

For these reasons, I will soon be sending a letter to the DOT Inspector General (IG), requesting a thorough audit of PHMSA’s pipeline and hazardous materials safety program, including an evaluation of the agency’s effectiveness in addressing significant safety issues, congressional mandates, and NTSB and IG recommendations in a timely manner; the process PHMSA utilizes for implementing such mandates and recommendations; the sufficiency of PHMSA’s efforts to coordinate with the modal administrations and address safety concerns raised by those administrations; and any impediments to agency action, such as resource constraints.

In the interim, I urge you to take immediate action to address these serious safety issues. The tens of millions of Americans who rely on the Federal Government to protect their safety and health and our nation’s natural resources rightly deserve more than proposed rules that languish in the Federal bureaucracy. If you need additional information or have questions regarding this letter, please have your staff contact Jennifer Homendy of my staff at 202-225-3274.


Ranking Democratic Member