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Oil-by-rail regulators outline safety initiatives

Earlier this year, we wrote about actions the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) have taken to increase the safety and security of transporting crude oil by rail. We promised that letter would be the first — not the last — communication you would receive from us on this topic.

Although the amount of crude oil transported by rail last year fell for the first time since 2006, we know the safety concerns of local communities with residents who live and work along crude oil routes have not. Let us assure you, the Department of Transportation’s focus on this issue will never waver because we know that when hazardous materials are transported, the stakes are high. This is why, since the last letter we sent to you, we have taken additional steps to keep communities along rail lines safe. We want to take this opportunity to update you on those developments.

In the United States, railroads are usually required to inspect tracks where crude oil travels at least once or twice per week. In addition to that requirement, FRA also conducts random inspections and audits of railroads to verify railroads are conducting inspections properly, and are taking appropriate corrective actions.

To add another layer of safety, FRA launched the Crude Oil Route Track Examination program, or CORTex. CORTex is an all-out, full-court inspection blitz on crude oil routes. During each CORTex, FRA sends dozens of additional inspectors to a specific region of the country to conduct inspections along crude oil routes. The inspectors are looking for safety hazards, defects and violations of track safety regulations. Each CORTex inspection shines a bright light on the routes where crude oil is being transported.

When we find problems during our CORTex program, or during any inspection, we take quick action. FRA has a zero-tolerance policy for safety violations on crude routes. Last year, FRA issued more than 6,000 civil penalty violations, up 23 percent from the previous year, and had its highest-ever collection rate of civil penalties issued against railroads and shippers.

Ensuring information is being shared with communities is important, too. First responders need as much information as possible about potential threats to any community. Two years ago, DOT started requiring railroads to share information about crude transport with state officials. We recently announced that railroads must continue to communicate and notify those officials going forward.

We are also continually working to provide resources and quality training for communities’ emergency responders. This spring PHMSA and FRA launched the Transportation Rail Incident Preparedness and Response program (TRIPR). The TRIPR program focuses on hazmat response and is available free of charge to emergency responders across the country. We recently held a TRIPR training workshop in New Jersey, and the next TRIPR event is in Richland, Washington, for the Pacific Northwest. We plan to host future TRIPR events across the country this summer. This is in addition to the hands-on training first responders receive at FRA’s Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colorado.

This training, combined with the $31.1 million in funding we awarded last year, helps emergency responders and local communities prepare for and respond to crude by rail incidents. Recent legislation also authorized PHMSA to create a new Community Safety Grant program to provide up to $1 million in grant funding to assist communities for outreach and training programs.Safety will always be the highest priority for DOT. We are committed to doing everything we can to keep those living and working near crude oil routes safe. As we work to accomplish this goal, we want to continue to improve transparency and keep the lines of communication between you, your reporters, your readers and DOT open.

Please contact us with any and all questions or concerns you may have. We plan on being in touch again in the months ahead.

Sarah E. Feinberg

Administrator

Federal Railroad

AdministrationU.S. Department

of Transportation

Marie Therese Dominguez

Administrator

Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

U.S. Department of Transportation

Editor’s note: This message was received Wednesday, May 25, from federal regulators who oversee oil-by-rail safety. As Columbia County has been, and will in all likelihood continue to be, affected by oil-by-rail operations, the Spotlight will present such messages about ongoing measures and initiatives being taken to address the many safety concerns raised by oil-by-rail transports. DS.