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Wis. Tanker Derailments Revive Debate Over Safest Way To Transport Crude


We are following some other stories this morning, including the flipside of rejecting the Keystone pipeline. President Obama blocked that pipeline designed to carry oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, but oil from Canada moves anyway through other pipelines, in trucks and by train. Two recent train derailments are raising concerns about safety. One train spilled ethanol into the Mississippi River. The other leaked crude oil in the middle of a small Wisconsin town. Safety advocates say the design of tank cars on trains is the problem, so they want Congress to follow through with plans to require stronger cars. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It was a typical Sunday afternoon in the Zarling house in Watertown, Wisc. - the Packer game on in one room, the five young kids running around and 34-year-old mom Sarah Zarling trying to cook a few meals for the week ahead.

SARAH ZARLING: There was a beef roast in the oven. I had had plans to make a chicken soup and then actually there was one more thing that I was making, but I can't remember that.

SCHAPER: Zarling forgets because of what happened next.

ZARLING: I had already noticed the oil train going by out my window and all of a sudden we hear this loud boom noise

SCHAPER: On the Canadian Pacific railroad tracks just a block away, 13 tank cars carrying volatile crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota derailed. One car was punctured, spilling close to a thousand gallons of oil, but it did not ignite. It was the second derailment of a train in Wisconsin in two days earlier this month. In the first, a BNSF train left the tracks along the Mississippi River near the small town of Alma. Five tank cars leaked close to 20,000 gallons of ethanol into the water.

KARL ALEXY: The Alma incident had what we call the legacy DOT-111 cars. They're the ones that don't have any modifications.

SCHAPER: That's Karl Alexy, director of the hazmat division in the office of safety at the Federal Railroad Administration. He says it's too soon to say what caused that derailment, but those older DOT-111s, called soda cans by oil train safety activists because they rupture so easily, they fall under new rules announced last spring requiring that within a couple of years they be strengthened.

ALEXY: And they would have a half-inch thick head shield. Had that half-inch thick head shield been on the car, based on the damage - what we know, it seems like that would have prevented that puncture.

SCHAPER: The tank cars that derailed in Watertown, says Alexy, are DOT-111s that have been retrofitted with those head shields, which he says may have kept that derailment from being worse. There's another element within the safety mandate that investigators say might have helped prevent at least some of the tank cars from leaving the tracks. They're called electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, or ECP brakes. FRA administrator Sarah Feinberg explains.

SARAH FEINBERG: Instead of the braking system sort of moving along from the front of the train to the back of the train and taking a bit of time, ECP brakes automatically break all of the tank cars at once, and so they are less likely to have a pile-up.

SCHAPER: But the railroads and the oil industry say ECP brakes are unproven, so Congress may require further study of the expensive braking system in the massive transportation authorization bill being hashed out on Capitol Hill. This new uncertainty over the future of the oil train safety rules comes at a time the amount of crude being shipped by rail is falling. The low price of oil is leading to cuts in production. In addition, a new pipeline opened in North Dakota, taking some oil there off the rails. Some wonder if the Keystone XL pipeline would have reduced the amount of Bakken crude shipped by train even more. Tessa Sandstrom is with the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

TESSA SANDSTROM: It would've taken about 100,000 barrels per day of crude oil from the Bakken. That's equivalent to about 500 semitrucks or 140 rail cars.

SCHAPER: That's at least one additional mile-long unit train of Bakken crude each day if rail was the only other option. It's not. There are at least three other North Dakota pipeline projects in the works that would have a lot more capacity for transporting Bakken crude than Keystone XL. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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