U.S. Department of Transportation Announces Safety Rule to Strengthen Oil Train Spill Response Preparedness

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), in coordination with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), has issued a final rule that requires railroads to develop and submit Comprehensive Oil Spill Response Plans for route segments traveled by High Hazard Flammable Trains (HHFTs).  The rule applies to HHFTs that are transporting petroleum oil in a block of 20 or more loaded tank cars and trains that have a total of 35 loaded petroleum oil tank cars. 

The new rules take affect in August and come after regulators reviewed more than a dozen oil car derailments from 2013 through 2016. “This new rule will make the transport of energy products by railroad safer,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao.

The rules, first proposed in July 2016, would “improve oil spill response readiness and mitigate effects of rail accidents and incidents involving petroleum oil and high-hazard flammable trains.” The new regulation “is necessary due to expansion in U.S. energy production having led to significant challenges for the country’s transportation system,” the agency added.

The rule revises the oil spill response plan requirements currently in place to require railroads to establish geographic response zones along various rail routes and ensure that both personnel and equipment are staged and prepared to respond in the event of an accident.  Furthermore, railroads are required to identify the qualified individual responsible for each response zone, as well as the organization, personnel, and equipment capable of removing and mitigating a worst-case discharge.  The rule also requires rail carriers to provide information about HHFTs to state and tribal emergency response commissions in accordance with the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015.

Railroads have long maintained they're much safer than trucks for moving crude oil and other hazardous materials. According to the Association of American Railroads, “railroads have approximately 10 percent of the hazmat accidents trucks have despite roughly equal hazmat ton-mileage," and fewer than 1 percent of all derailments in 2017 involved cars transporting crude oil, and the rail hazmat accident rate has dropped by 41 percent since 2008. Despite more than 99.99 percent of all such cargo reaching destination without an accident causing a release, several high-profile rail accidents involving crude oil spills within the last five years caught the public's attention, prompting the increased regulatory oversight.

Read the U.S. Rail Transportation of Crude Oil: Background and Issues for Congress