Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, and three of her House colleagues from Northern California asked the U.S. Department of Transportation Tuesday to tighten regulations on crude oil transportation by rail before those shipments dramatically expand in the state.
In a letter to Secretary Anthony Foxx, Matsui and Reps. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, John Garamendi, D-Fairfield and George Miller, D-Martinez, asked the department to go beyond its previous emergency orders, issued after a series of high-profile accidents involving crude oil trains in the past year.
"We are especially concerned with the high risks involved with transporting lighter, more flammable crude in densely populated areas," they wrote. "Should spills or explosions occur, as we have seen over the last year, the consequences could be disastrous, costing lives, damaging property, and harming the environment."
The lawmakers requested that Foxx monitor rail industry compliance with a May 7 DOT emergency order requiring that state and local emergency officials be notified of large crude oil shipments. California's Office of Emergency Services has expressed concern that the notices have reported oil train movements after the fact rather than in advance.
They asked DOT to require petroleum producers to strip out flammable liquid gases that may be present in higher concentrations in crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region. The oil has proved flammable in several derailments, though the government and oil industry aren't in agreement on precisely why.
The lawmakers want a rapid phaseout of DOT-111 tank cars from crude oil service. Such cars have performed poorly in derailments involving hazardous materials over the years, including most recently ethanol and crude oil.
They also want DOT to require the installation of a collision-avoidance system called Positive Train Control on all routes used to transport lighter crudes such as Bakken. Congress required the system on the entire rail network by the end of 2015, but the rail industry is having trouble meeting the deadline.
Efforts to expand crude-by-rail shipments have met with resistance in many communities since the derailment a year ago next week in Quebec of a train carrying Bakken crude. Fires and explosions killed 47 people and destroyed the center of Lac-Megantic, a small town near the Maine border.
Several more derailments since then, though not fatal, spurred a series of actions by DOT and the railroads to address train handling, speeds, crew sizes, inspections and emergency response. New rules that could lead to safer train operations and more robust tank cars are being reviewed by the White House and could be in place by the end of the year.
California is projected to receive a quarter of its petroleum supply by rail in a few years, displacing oil arriving by ship from Alaska and foreign countries.
The four California House Democrats urged DOT to act within its power to make the rail shipments as safe as possible.
"We cannot allow communities to be in danger when viable solutions are available," they wrote.
PHOTO: A crude oil train operated by BNSF snakes its way through James, California, just outside the Feather River Canyon in the foothills of Sacramento Valley, on June 5, 2014. Special to The Bee/Jake Miille