The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is considering both arguments, but the regulatory process is slow and could take several years, experts said.
Industry representatives say a retrofit isn’t feasible because of engineering challenges and costs. They insist the threat of serious accidents is overstated.
“How many millions of miles have the 111 cars run without problems?” said Lawrence Bierlein, an attorney for the Association of Hazmat Shippers Inc. “It’s more likely you’re going to be hit by lightning.”
But worries about the tankers’ weaknesses persist, especially since the volume of dangerous cargo on American rails is only expected to grow.
Ethanol production has soared from 900 million gallons in 1990 to nearly 14 billion gallons last year. Seeking to lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil, federal mandates will quadruple the amount of ethanol and other renewable fuel that’s blended into the nation’s gasoline and diesel by 2022.
Nearly all of it moves by rail. In 2010, that meant 325,000 carloads of ethanol, according to the Association of American Railroads. Ethanol is now the highest-volume hazardous material shipped by rail. In 2000, it wasn’t even in the top 10.
“That may account for the increasing frequency of accidents involving the DOT-111s and the current attention that’s being drawn to them,” said Paul Stancil, a senior hazardous materials accident investigator with the NTSB.
Since 2005, ethanol has increasingly been shipped in higher densities using “virtual pipelines” – trains in which every car carries the same product. The NTSB says that practice increases the potential severity of accidents like one in 2009 in the northern Illinois city of Rockford.
On the way home from her nursing job, Chris Carter stopped at a rail crossing near Rockford as a Canadian National freight train barreled past carrying more than 2 million gallons of ethanol to Chicago.
Unknown to the train’s two crew members and the small number of waiting motorists, a section of track had washed out in a rainstorm earlier that evening.<< previous 1 2 3 4 next >>