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The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) late last week ordered railroad tank car owners to replace unapproved valves on some tank cars that have recently been involved in oil train leaks.The FRA issued a "rail worthiness directive" calling for tank car owners to replace UNNR ball valves manufactured and sold by McKenzie & Machining LLC. The FRA recently discovered that the valves were being used even though they had not been approved for use on railroad tank cars. When not properly configured, the valves resulted in "tank cars leaking small quantities of hazardous materials," FRA officials said in a press release.One example was discovered in January, when a BNSF Railway Co. train of 100 tank cars loaded with crude oil was being transported from Tioga, N.D., to a refinery in Anacortes, Wash. BNSF discovered 14 tank cars leaking crude oil on the route. The FRA then inspected seven of the leaking cars that BNSF removed from the train in Vancouver, Wash.The FRA inspector found oil leaking from the liquid line ball valves and around each valve’s closure plug. Additional FRA tests found that certain closure plugs installed on the 3” valves caused mechanical damage, which destructed the valves’ seal integrity. Further tests found that when a 3" closure plug was applied and tightened in the 3" McKenzie valve, the plug contacted and damaged the ball. An application of downward force on the valve ball applied by the 3" plug resulted in the over-compression, damage and misalignment of the inboard seal, causing the valve to leak, FRA officials said.Federal regulations require that all valves on tank cars must be approved by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) Tank Car Committee. The FRA will work with the AAR to begin a full audit of the AAR's process for approving tank car valves and other components, FRA officials said."Ensuring the safe transport of hazardous materials is a top priority for the Department of Transportation," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a prepared statement. "I expect this audit to force a stricter adherence to the structures in place to keep our railways safe."
Also last week, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) called on the Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan to act on draft proposals made by the USDOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA) to update tank car rules designed to improve rail safety."We cannot afford to compromise the safety of our families, and the future of our neighborhoods by allowing this feeling of 'what if' to continue — but by delaying the approval of much-needed updates to standards to improve the safety of our crude oil trains, that's exactly what we’re doing," said Heitkamp in a press release.In the wake of a 2013 crude-oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D., Heitkamp has called on federal regulators to tighten safety standards regarding rail transportation of crude oil and other hazardous materials. She has expressed concern over federal government delays in finalizing the new regulations."I ask that the [Office of Management and Budget Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] prioritize finalizing a comprehensive rule as soon as possible to help address a critical part of our nation's crude-by-rail safety plan," Heitkamp wrote in a letter to Donovan.