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Rail News: Federal Legislation & Regulation

DeFazio requests USDOT action on tank-car safety; Kind and Baldwin seek environmental review of BNSF track project


U.S Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) last week sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urging him to take immediate action to address tank-car safety.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) maintains that finalizing a tank-car safety rule remains one of its highest priorities, yet the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) now reports that publication of a final rule is not anticipated until May 12 and the USDOT has not even transmitted a draft final rule to the Office of Management and Budget for review, wrote DeFazio, the ranking member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The USDOT aims to issue a final tank-car rule prior to May.

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 [July] 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," DeFazio wrote. Two months later, PHMSA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking 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," DeFazio wrote. "That will end up postponing implementation of a final rule while the concerns of states and local communities are growing.

Delays in issuing a final rule also have significant implications for rail-car manufacturers, he believes. It will take time for car builders 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, said DeFazio.

The USDOT should "seriously consider" severing the rule and proposing one rule on stronger tank-car design standards and another to address the operational changes cited in the notice of proposed rulemaking, he believes.

"That is sure to move this issue forward and address the more immediate dangers posed by the current DOT-111 tank cars," said DeFazio.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) last week sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requesting that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be conducted ahead of the BNSF Railway Co.’s planned track expansion through La Crosse, Wis., and along the La Crosse River Marsh.

The track project calls for filling in 7.2 acres of wetland, the politicians wrote in their joint letter. An EIS should be required to determine the project's effects on water quality, vegetation, wildlife, flood drainage and waterway navigation, Kind and Baldwin believe.

A federal EIS is required by the National Environmental Policy Act for actions that could have significant environmental impacts, and would provide reasonable alternatives that could avoid or minimize adverse effects, they wrote.

"The preservation and protection of the LaCrosse River Marsh and the Mississippi River are vital to sustaining a strong economy, a high quality of life for communities along the river and the maintenance of a watershed rich with biodiversity," Kind and Baldwin wrote. "It is critical that all wetland impacts of this project are fully understood before a permit is granted."

However, BNSF officials believe no EIS is necessary and support the agencies’ decisions on the required level of review.

"They have considered a robust amount of information and we look forward to continuing to cooperate as they complete the process," BNSF officials said in an emailed statement.