Coalition files federal suit alleging new tank-car safety rule lacking

In response to the recent derailments and toxic spills involving trains hauling volatile crude oil, a group made up of representatives from conservation and citizens' groups has sued the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), alleging new safety standards for oil trains recently set by the DOT fail to protect the public.

On May 1, the DOT unveiled its final tank-car safety rule, and a week later, a train hauling crude oil burst into flames near Heimdal, North Dakota.

Research revealed that under current standards, the cars involved in the incident would not have been retired, nor retorfitted, for another five to eight years and would have continued carrying crude oil.

On the heels of the North Dakota explosion, the conservation coalition Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in federal court, challenging the new rule on behalf of ForestEthics, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Washington Environmental Council, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Spokane Riverkeeper, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The Department of Transportation’s weak oil-train standard just blew up in its face on the plains of North Dakota,” Patti Goldman, an Earthjustice attorney, said. “Pleas from the public, reinforced by the National Transportation Safety Board, to stop hauling explosive crude in these tank cars have fallen on deaf ears, leaving people across the country vulnerable to catastrophic accidents.”

The new rule fails to protect people and communities in several major ways, Goldman said. Unsafe practices the suit alleges include keeping hazardous cars on the tracks for up to a decade, poor public-notification requirements, inadequate shells on retrofit cars and unacceptable speed limits.

“The Department of Transportation got it wrong with its so-called safety regulations for oil tank cars," Lena Moffitt, director of Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels Campaign, said. "Until meaningful safety benefits are put in place, communities across the country should not be exposed to volatile crude trains.”

Todd Paglia, ForestEthics' executive director, agreed.

­“We’re suing the administration because these rules won’t protect the 25 million Americans living in the oil-train blast zone,” he said.

In the past, DOT-111 tank cars were found to be prone to puncture on impact, spilling oil and often triggering destructive fires and explosions. The National Transportation Safety Board has made official recommendations to stop shipping crude oil in these hazardous tank cars, but the federal regulators have not responded.

Estimates by ForestEthics indicate that 25 million Americans live in dangerous blast zones along the nation’s rail lines.

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